'I can't pay it back. So I pay it forward':
AVON, Colorado — Huffing a bit, Mike Williams, 75, hauled the box of food up the apartment stairs, stacking it atop another already sitting outside the door. Dan Smith, 73, followed close behind, an identical box resting against his red Salvation Army jacket.
The boxes began piling up as the two volunteers made another trip up the stairs, their steps getting a little slower each time. Both men are squarely in the most dangerous category for COVID-19 infections: older, with pre-existing health conditions. Their concern, however, was focused on the family behind the door, eight of their neighbors who were waiting out a coronavirus quarantine mandated by county health officials.
"Everyone has their own risk-benefit calculation," Smith said. "I've made my calculation. You've got plenty of time to do nothing when that first shovel of dirt hits your face. This is not the time to do nothing."
Across the country, tens of thousands of volunteers like Williams and Smith have stepped up to help their fellow Americans in this time of need. While critics have called the federal government's response faltering and inconsistent at best, ordinary people are filling the gaps in aid, raising money to buy masks and gloves for nurses, donating money to out-of-work restaurant employees and distributing food and supplies to people stuck in their homes.
The volunteers concede they might be putting themselves at risk, both by working alongside other volunteers and by interacting with people who might have the coronavirus. In some cases, there aren't enough supplies to keep them safe and volunteers are expected to provide their own face marks and other protective gear. But many Americans say they feel compelled to help out a time when the nation is facing unprecedented unemployment rates and as the death toll continues to climb.
At the Salvation Army's food bank in Avon, demand nearly doubled in the space of a week as Colorado Gov. Jared Polis ordered ski areas to close at the height of the Spring Break season, followed by sit-down restaurants and retail stores. Since then Avon has been hit so hard by coronavirus infections that public health officials specifically told anyone who's been there to quarantine themselves for 14 days.
For days, private donors have been pouring resources into the local food bank. Some people drive up to donate a box of food. Vail Resorts has been emptying its ski-area restaurant freezers into the food bank's storage. An anonymous private donor gave $20,000 to provide Feed the Children meal boxes, which Smith, Williams and other volunteers have been delivering daily.
Smith and Williams are longtime volunteers with the Salvation Army, which also provides meals during disasters to both victims and first responders. They don't know who they're helping: The county health department gives them a list of addresses of quarantined or shut-in residents to serve and they make the deliveries.
At the food bank itself, a steady stream of community members stopped by on a recent day for help, collecting boxes of pasta, canned goods and frozen milk. Volunteer Bob Boselli, 51, handed an Easter basket to a little girl clutching her mom's jacket. Boselli and his wife own several souvenir shops in the area, but furloughed about 20 workers when he was forced to close. He immediately began volunteering, knowing that some of his own staff might soon be needing assistance.
"You have to help the people in need," he said during a break as he ate a sandwich donated by a local restaurant. "You have to help people out."
Minutes later, a truck from Food Bank of the Rockies pulled up to the food bank's building, set just behind the tony downtown of Avon, where Land Rovers prowl the streets and there are 30 homes for sale in the area priced above $5 million. The shutdown has idled the house cleaners and maintenance workers who keep the neighborhoods and hotels humming, the cooks and servers who feed the vacationing skiers, along with the ski instructors and lift operators.
"We saw the opportunity to help, so we came to help," said volunteer Arturo Zuniga, 43, who normally works construction but instead spent the afternoon handing out food to his neighbors, many of whom only speak Spanish. "This situation is so hard for so many."
Valerie Woodbury, 63, a property manager who temporarily has no properties to manage, came to the food bank last week looking to help.
"I came by last Wednesday and haven't left a week later," she said from behind her mask. At the food bank, who wears a mask depends entirely on whether they have one of their own -- the food bank doesn't have any to spare. Many volunteers, from children to adults like Smith, were instead using bandannas or neck gaiters normally used to keep warm when skiing.
"Everyone remember your social distancing," Woodbury barked at the small army of volunteers as they unloaded pallets of food from the delivery truck. "Keep your distance."
Back out on their delivery route, Smith and Williams banged on the apartment door and hustled back down the stairs. They're not supposed to have any contact with the people they're serving.
"Turn around, " Williams yelled up to the woman who opened the door. "Behind you."
The woman turned to see the boxes, and her mouth split into a huge smile. "Thank you," she said. "Thank you."
Inside the apartment, Itzel Villa, 11, watched as her family eagerly opened the boxes, pulling out cans of tuna, rolls of toilet paper and bags of broccoli. There was also shampoo. Lotion. Corn Flakes. Everything necessary for another week of confinement.
"We are safe and we are happy," Villa said, translating on behalf of her extended family. "Thank you so much."
Back outside, sitting in his SUV after a long day of working at the food bank, delivering food to quarantined families and then delivering hot meals to the local ambulance service, Williams mused about his lifetime of service. He's been volunteering with the Salvation Army through his church for more than six years, and said he's never seen as many people giving thanks as in the past few weeks. Like many first responders, he's taken the lesson of Isaiah 6:8 to heart: When the Lord asks who will go, the answer has always been "send me."
Smith and Williams know they're taking a risk in helping their community, but Smith figures neither are actually critical. If he gets sick, Smith said, the world will keep running. And by taking the place of other people whose skills and training might be more useful to the community as the infections spread, he knows he's making a difference.
Williams served as a special forces operator in Vietnam, and Smith was with the armored cavalry. Both served multiple tours, returning again and again to the front lines despite their war wounds. With nine Purple Hearts between the two of them, danger is an old friend.
"I owe," Williams said. "I don't know who I owe. I survived Vietnam. And I can't pay it back. So I pay it forward."