COVID Response: ‘Saving Lives’

Volunteers, aid organizations band together to meet needs throughout Oakland County

Dustin McClellan, founder and CEO of Pontiac Community Foundation (left), and Jennifer Lucarelli, associate professor and chair of interdisciplinary health science at Oakland University (right), work together to load boxes of food to distribute from the Oakland Center. Photo courtesy of Oakland University and by John McTaggart Photography

As Oakland County residents sheltered in place one recent Thursday during the COVID-19 crisis, four Sysco semitrucks lined up outside a warehouse at Oakland University, each filled to capacity with food donations.

Dustin McClellan, founder and CEO of Pontiac Community Foundation, guided the trucks to a loading dock and helped drivers offload boxes of cereal, snacks, water, juices and 800 frozen turkeys. The food was overflow supply from restaurants shuttered to curb the spread of coronavirus and would soon be distributed to hundreds of residents throughout Oakland County.

The effort was part of COVID Response, a brand-new network of aid agencies in Oakland County that are partnering to address increasing needs in the community as the global pandemic hits home.

The storage facility was arranged by Jennifer Lucarelli, associate professor of interdisciplinary health sciences at OU and co-chair of Healthy Pontiac, We Can! The drop-off was coordinated by Disaster Relief at Work (DRAW), with more than 600 volunteers from 56 organizations on call to sort, box and deliver the food to seniors and families in need.

Dustin McClellan, founder and CEO of Pontiac Community Foundation.

“It’s been beautiful to watch the community come together,” McClellan says.

In its very first week of existence, COVID Response delivered 42,000 total meals to 2,000 individuals. It is only expected to grow.

Get Help, Give Help

According to its website, COVID Response is “a network of leaders from various local community organizations, churches and other agencies in central Oakland County who are working to establish connections between those in need and those with resources to meet those needs.”

Visit the site and you’ll see coronavirus information and blogs, and a list of the many network partners that are on board.

Most importantly, there’s an online form that allows people to request help in 10 crucial areas, in 12 different languages. In addition to food and household supplies, COVID Response helps with child care, tutoring, prayer, grief counseling and addiction support. As Lucarelli explains, she never imagined COVID Response would come together as quickly as it did.

But it had to, she says, as so many people suffered loss of income when coronavirus hit.

“We began talking to people at all different agencies: What are you doing? Do you need help? How can we collaborate? How are we going to deal with the onslaught of demand?” Lucarelli says. “Nobody was really having that conversation yet.”

Jennifer Lucarelli, associate professor of interdisciplinary health sciences at OU and co-chair of Healthy Pontiac, We Can!

Lucarelli turned to friend and colleague McClellan, with whom she had long worked to help residents of Pontiac. They convened a meeting of local leaders and all agreed the best chance they had to address the unprecedented COVID situation was to join forces.

“We wanted one voice and a comprehensive set of resources,” Lucarelli explains. “Let’s pull all these services together and serve families in one transaction that will last them the entire week, and let’s take it a step further and deliver it to their doorstep.”

The final piece of the puzzle was Cameron Underdown of Abide Ministries, who created the website that brought the plan to life.

“Cameron is the key to making all this work,” Lucarelli says.

Mapping Demand

The website’s premier function is as a database that organizes needs by geographic location, allowing volunteers to target areas and deliver food to several residences at once. The goal is to drop off a week’s worth of perishables and pantry items at a time to minimize trips that could contribute to the spread of the virus.

The group cares for citizens who are most at risk — seniors who live alone, residents with underlying health conditions, families without a financial cushion and children who had relied on free or reduced meals at school. Volunteers call to check on the elderly, deliver diapers to young mothers and connect those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 with grief support.

As COVID Response continues to expand, it’s apparent that needs are widespread and spiking. COVID Response is working to secure a second warehouse to serve residents in south Oakland County.

Michigan is one of the hardest-hit states in the nation both in terms of COVID-19 infections and deaths, as well as economic impact. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates one in five Michigan residents has been laid off or furloughed due to mandated shutdowns in every sector.

“A lot of people who have never had to rely on social services are coming into the system,” Lucarelli says. “We really want to help people get over the stigma. There is no shame in asking for assistance. We want the most vulnerable populations to stay home.”

Oakland County Executive David Coulter expressed his gratitude for the project.

“Large-scale emergencies, no matter the cause, require a coordinated response beyond what government provides to be effective,” Coulter says. “Residents have immediate needs during these emergencies and don’t always know where to turn for help.

“COVID Response, through its organizations and community volunteers, is a vital resource providing immediate assistance to the people who need it most.”

Lucarelli, McClellan and DRAW Executive Director Greg Martin have been recognized in the Oakland County Executive’s Elite 40 Under 40 program, which honors young professionals and thought leaders who live or work in the county and have achieved excellence in their careers.

Still, for all they’ve done in the past, Lucarelli says nothing compares to COVID Response: “We’re helping save lives.”

If you need help during the COVID-19 crisis, or would like to help others, visit