Max Silver, an 18-year-old at the University of Michigan who chose to sit out this semester at home in Los Altos, had been looking for a volunteer opportunity to stay busy. He checked out Vax Volunteers after he heard about it from his mom.
“I’d searched online sporadically but couldn’t find anything I wanted to do that was related to Covid-19,” Silver said. “The Vax Volunteers site is easy to maneuver, so I filled out some of the registration forms for local sites, and I’m waiting to hear back.”
That is exactly what Sharon Leslie of Los Altos had in mind when she launched vaxvolunteers.org, which connects individuals eager to volunteer at vaccine distribution sites with clinics across the country. She believes it to be the only centralized clearinghouse offering information on medical and nonmedical volunteer opportunities in all 50 states.
Her timing was perfect.
The website went live March 1, the day before President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. should have enough vaccines for every adult by the end of May. “To get everyone vaccinated by then, distribution clinics are going to need a lot of help,” she said, including “volunteers to greet and check in people, control traffic and do data entry. Responsibility for all that falls to us, as citizens.”
A licensed oncology physical therapist, Leslie, 47, currently is a master’s degree candidate in the field of global and humanitarian health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is a member of Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City, a past president of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto and sits on the national board of American Jewish World Service.
She never set out to develop a website to encourage volunteerism at vaccine clinics. Education was on her mind.
“On Feb. 29, 2020, I started a WhatsApp group for my family so I could apprise them of what was coming, curate accurate information and root out disinformation about all things Covid-19,” Leslie said. Over time, the group expanded to about 150 people.
“This year, I’ve gotten a lot of questions from the group about where to get tested and where to get vaccinated,” Leslie said. “Then people started asking how they could volunteer at distribution sites. I wanted to help, too, so I looked online, thinking it would be easy to find that information.”
It was not. “Just as it’s been the Wild West for finding vaccines in the Bay Area, it’s that way for finding volunteer opportunities as well, with a lot of different sites,” she said.
Around late January, she sat down one evening and made a spreadsheet of distribution sites throughout California, sharing it with her WhatsApp group and other friends. Then she expanded her online searches, looking for vaccine distribution clinics all over the country.
“Once I had that, I knew it was a great resource, because so many people are anxious to give back, to do something tangible to help,” Leslie said. With her daughter, she put up a simple website on Feb. 3 to help people find opportunities to volunteer. “After a friend in Kansas City volunteered to build a better site, we were able to lose the clunky beta version. We launched the new one on March 1, and I want it to have the biggest impact possible.”
To date, with no publicity or extensive outreach, the site has had over 1,000 hits, Leslie said. Some people have asked her to make recommendations or pair them up with specific distribution sites. “We’re not a concierge service and we can’t do that,” Leslie said. “We’re a small grassroots project, run by volunteers around the country.”
Dr. Ellen Brown, a semi-retired Bay Area hospice and palliative care physician currently based in Anchorage, Alaska, is one of them. She monitors the need for volunteers at distribution clinics in five states. A few weeks ago, in her position as a consultant for the Avenidas Senior Center in Palo Alto, Brown was asked by a woman in her 70s how she might arrange to volunteer at a distribution site now that she had received both vaccines. Leslie and Brown are friends, so Brown knew to recommend Vax Volunteers.
“Sharon has done an incredible job to make volunteering an easier experience,” Brown said.
Leslie advises that anyone who sign ups on the site needs to practice patience. “This isn’t going to happen tomorrow or maybe even right away, but because I’ve signed up to volunteer in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties and also through Sutter Health, now I am in those databases,” she said. “They will contact me when they need me.”