A College Student’s Helping Hands Brought Essentials and Kindness to Our City During COVID

Liam Elkind, co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit Invisible Hands, put his belief that “it’s only by pulling together that we’ll pull through” into action for those in need

| 07 Jun 2021 | 08:43

In March 2020, Liam Elkind had returned to his parents’ Morningside Heights home for spring break from Yale University. As COVID spread through the city and lockdown orders were being put into place, he felt the mantra he was hearing at the time of “Be a hero; stay home,” was, as he put it, “inadequate.” “As a young, healthy person during this time of immense crisis, there has to be more that we can be doing than just staying home,” he said of his initial thoughts. After a serendipitous Facebook post from his friend Simone Policano, asking for places where she could volunteer to deliver food and medicine to the elderly, made it clear that no such organization yet existed, Elkind decided to create one himself.

With the help of Policano and friend Healy Chait, Elkind launched Invisible Hands two days later, and 72 hours after that, they already had 1,300 volunteers who had signed up. Not soon after, the fledgling startup — which didn’t even have nonprofit or corporate status — was given a nod in an email blast from Bernie Sanders to his entire Listserv and was even recognized by then-soon-to-be President Joe Biden on Twitter. “And even just the notion that within two days, I could go from sitting on my butt watching Netflix feeling useless in the world to being tweeted about by the future president of the United States ... speaks to the incredible power of social organizing and movements,” Elkind said.

Invisible Hands began its altruistic work by delivering to the elderly, compromised and disabled, focusing on those who couldn’t leave their homes during the pandemic. However, through generous donations, they were able expand their efforts to include those experiencing food insecurity as well. This month, they are branching out even further, providing free delivery of primary ballots to any registered voter in New York City. “I consider our mission to be delivering essentials to those in need,” Elkind explained. “Essentials can mean a lot of different things.”

Tell us about the beginnings of Invisible Hands.

To say, “We went viral,” feels a little disrespectful for the time we were going through, but it was partially due to a few things. One, just the simple fact that people were looking for something good to do during that time, so actively seeking out volunteer opportunities. Two, we were very early; we were very quick on the draw and able to mobilize our volunteer movement very quickly. And three is we were in a lot of hyperlocal papers, so we were able to get the word out through the local press, and it’s a really powerful reminder of the power that local press has.

Pretty soon after that, we were on the [”Nightly News with”] Lester Holt show, “Good Morning America,” “Fox & Friends,” Tamron Hall had us on — and all these different shows that really helped us spread the word to volunteers and establish our credibility, and spread the word to recipients as well. Because that was one of the really interesting things, trying to reach people who were not leaving their homes. So we started doing that through local press, reaching out to senior centers, social workers and organizations like AARP.

Explain how you were able to expand your efforts with the donations you received.

When we first started getting donations, Simone and I made the big, bold choice to purchase a $26-dollar-a-month website versus a $16 dollar-a-month one. A $26-dollar-a-month website can take donations, and we were very excited about that possibility. We figured, “We’ll make up the $10 bucks a month somewhere, I’m sure.” And we ended up getting hundreds of dollars in donations and then thousands and thousands. And we’re like, “Oh my God, what do we do with all this money?” I’m a college student; I’m used to spending money on pizza and beer. So we said, “We’ll put it right back into the community in the form of a subsidy program.” So we would subsidize up to $30 dollars per household per week of free food. And we were able to expand our client base from people who were just stuck at home to people who couldn’t even afford their own food and were facing a much more profound challenge ...

We were able to serve hundreds of families, but the problem was, word spread too quickly and we were a small, new startup organization that hadn’t even done any corporation or nonprofit status officially. And then Bernie Sanders emails out that flyer with my personal phone number on it to his entire Listserv. I start getting all these calls at like 2 in the morning from Fort Worth, Texas and Sacramento. He didn’t specify New York; he didn’t specify $30 dollars. He was just like, “Call this number if you need free food.” We start getting calls from around the world, from Kenya, Malaysia and Australia. People saying, “Hey, can you set up a service in our area?” Unfortunately, we had to shut the subsidy program down just because we didn’t have the capacity to support all the demand. So we started delivering to people in partnership with pantries, mutual aid groups and churches — places that had that food or funding that we didn’t have, but we could provide the volunteers to deliver to them.

In March of 2020, then-presidential candidate Joe Biden even tweeted about Invisible Hands. What was going through your mind at the time?

Honestly, that entire month is such a blur. That was a crazy moment. I didn’t even see it; I’m not that active on social media. I got a text from a friend who said, “Joe Biden just tweeted about you.” And this was before he had locked up the primary. It was wild and it really did help spur some of that awareness about us.

You didn’t just deliver; you also spoke with and connected to people. I love the story about how a woman you helped tried to set you up with her granddaughter.

[Laughs] Yeah, there was a woman I delivered to named Avril who I dropped off her food and we got to talking. And she said, “You know who would love you?” And I said, “Who?” And she said, “My granddaughter.” And she was like, “Let me set you up with her.” She followed up with an email, sent a picture of her granddaughter. It was so sweet. And it reminded me that this is not just about volunteers and recipients. This is about community members helping each other out during a time of unprecedented crisis.

Wait, so did you ever go out with her?

No, because it was COVID. I couldn’t go out. But no, we got to talking. She was very sweet. We did not end up going out, though that would make for a fantastic story. I ended up actually getting together with one of our volunteers. I’m actually with her now. She’s in the other room doing some work.

Tell us about someone who reached out to thank you for your work.

I got an email from this woman who lived in Michigan. Her father lived alone in New York. He was in his 80s and he’d been diagnosed with COVID. And he didn’t know where to turn; he was isolated and he was sick. He didn’t want to go to the store; he didn’t want to get anybody else sick. And so she heard about us and reached out. And his volunteer would deliver to him each week, drop off food and medicine. And she said then they would sit on either side of his door and talk about their lives and their fears and their joys. And they never saw each other, like they wouldn’t have recognized each other if they passed on the street, but they became friends. And he passed away from COVID, but his daughter said, “Your help was not in vain. And the relief and reassurance and friendship that you were able to provide meant the world to me and my father, who I couldn’t be there for in his last days.”

For more information, please visit www.invisiblehandsdeliver.org

Follow Liam on Twitter @liamelkind

From June 1st through June 20th, any registered voter in New York City can have their primary ballot delivered by an Invisible Hands volunteer by visiting https://invisiblehandsdeliver.org/vote.