Ten days ago, the lives of four twenty-something friends—Simone Policano, Healy Chait, Mimi Aboubaker, and Liam Elkind—looked very different. Chait and Elkind were both readying to finish their junior year of college; Policano was busy wrapping up her acting role in an off-Broadway play and Aboubaker was focused on launching her financial aid startup. But, as this began to spread rapidly, the group, who met through mutual acquaintances, were all struck by healthcare workers who were risking their lives to help their local communities. “We decided if they can do that, then we can deliver some groceries,” Policano says.

Last week, they launched Invisible Hands, an initiative that serves elderly citizens and other high-risk people who are completely confined to their homes. The group, which is based in New York and New Jersey, fields orders through their website, then a volunteer safely shops and delivers groceries and supplies to their homes. After one week, Invisible Hands has amassed 5,000 volunteers and inspired similar organizations around the world.

Not only are Policano, Chait, Aboubaker, and Elkind providing a much-needed service in their community, they’re also making meaningful connections⁠—at a safe, social distance, of course⁠—with each delivery. At a time when human-to-human contact is discouraged and dangerous, finding friends can be difficult, especially for those who may not be as tech-savvy and Zoom-literate as the rest. Invisible Hands is bringing sustenance to people, but just as meaningfully, the group is also providing comfort with a symbolic handshake.

Below, the founders discuss what the last week has been like for them and how they hope Invisible Hands can inspire others to do similar work in their own communities.

Why and how did you decide to launch the Invisible Hands initiative?

Simone Policano: Last Thursday, as I left the grocery store, I was worried about the health and safety of the elderly people I’d seen shopping. By the time I got home, the news and particularly the health warnings were even bleaker than when I’d left. ‘This could go on for a while,’ I thought. So I sat down and posted on Facebook, ‘Hello! Is there a way for an able-bodied 25-year-old to volunteer to deliver groceries and supplies to elderly tenants around the city? Does anyone know of something like this? Thank you!’

Within an hour, many friends had expressed enthusiasm. I started a spreadsheet of volunteers. When my friend Liam saw my post, he was touched and, sharing my commitment and drive to do some good in the crisis, offered to help. We decided to team up—and Invisible Hands was launched, with a website and a hundred volunteers.

In just over a week, we’ve already surged to over 5,000 volunteers, fulfilled hundreds of deliveries, and raised over $20,000 in donations.

What essentials are you shopping for and delivering and how do people get in touch if they want help or if they want to volunteer?

Liam Elkind: Invisible Hands provides delivery of groceries, prescription drugs, and other essentials for elderly, immunocompromised, and otherwise at-risk individuals. Essentially, we’re helping people who can’t safely help themselves during this time. We don’t just want to perform this service for individuals; community organizations are starting to plug into our distribution network to arrange free meal deliveries, dog walking, and other services. This expansion is still in the early stages, however.

As things change greatly from day to day, what has the last week been like for Invisible Hands?

Healy Chait: This past week has been shockingly busy, in the best way possible. The massive outpouring of support has been astounding to witness. People are hungry to help. Volunteers are connecting with one another, making new friends, ensuring that the distance we are committed to maintaining is only physical.

Almost immediately, people reached out to translate our flyers into over a dozen languages so that we could reach every member of all our communities. We have all committed to maintaining the strict standards of hygiene and safety as recommended by the CDC and WHO (social distancing, wearing latex gloves, wiping down baskets and bags, and more) and staying up to date on and following all laws, regulations, and recommended precautions. Our volunteers are stepping forward carefully yet courageously into the uncertain world — to talk to their neighbors and help get essential supplies to those most in need. People have generously offered their professional assistance as we ramp up. Others have begun work to expand Invisible Hands to their own towns and cities across the country—and now the world. This movement of love and service has flourished in these rough days as we confront this time; it’s been inspiring to see so many people so eager to find a way to help others.

Have there been any particularly meaningful with the people you have served in the community thus far?

LE: I delivered some groceries to a puppeteer named Carol who lived in my neighborhood. We had never met before, but she found out about us through her synagogue and reached out to us. As I came down the hallway to deliver the food to her, she immediately invited me into her home to have tea and cookies, proudly displaying one of her puppets with a sign that read, ‘Welcome, Liam and Invisible Hands!’ I said, ‘Carol! I can’t come in, that’s the whole point! We have to be socially distancing!’ And she said, ‘Okay fine, but when this thing is over you’re coming over for some treats.’ I am looking forward to that day.

We had another recipient who mentioned that she was spending her birthday in isolation because she couldn’t go out and see her friends. So we brought her a birthday card to celebrate! She reached out later, saying:

‘I feel as if I just had the best dream…you and your mission brought me to grateful and happy tears. Being in my 70’s, I was afraid to go out, and I spent hours trying to get groceries online. All efforts failed…please know that you are amazingly impressive people of high integrity and deep hearts. Having taught since 1970, I can only hope that some of my students [will] be like you. Now, off to make zucchini bread.’

I’ve been texting and emailing with many of the people I’ve delivered to, and will certainly see them again. In this crazy time, loneliness is potential. My meetings with Carol and so many other generous people like her remind me that we’re able to come together when the world feels like it’s pulling us apart. That’s the only way we pull through this; by pulling together.

Are there plans to try and expand Invisible Hands outside of New York in the U.S. or even globally?

LE: Yes! Invisible Hands is only a few days old, but the outpouring of support received from members of our community has shown us that there is a deep desire to do good in a world that often feels so bad. We’ve received calls and emails from local organizers and public servants from New Jersey to California, Mexico to Kenya to Malaysia. Everyday heroes keep contacting us to ask how they can be of service to those most in need.

Click here to sign up or volunteer for Invisible Hands.

Thank You Invisible Hands