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In pandemic, everyday heroes step up to help strangers

This story first appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of rjmagazine, a quarterly published inside the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Read the rest of the Summer 2020 issue here.

In pandemic, everyday heroes step up to help strangers

In times of crisis, Las Vegas has shown itself to be a community tight as a clenched fist.

But amid the coronavirus pandemic, that fist became a helping hand, extended in many directions.

Scores of people are risking their health while manning the front lines in the battle to contain the virus — first responders, medical professionals, volunteer workers.

Heroes, all.

Here, however, we chronicle a different kind of hero — those who went above and beyond in a time of unprecedented anxiety and uncertainty to help total strangers.

Zachary Steward delivered free toilet paper to needy households due to national shortages cause ...
Zachary Steward delivered free toilet paper to needy households due to national shortages caused by the coronavirus pandemic. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @benjaminhphoto

‘Why not help people who are in need?’

The shelves were empty. His gas tank was full.

And so Zachary Steward got to work.

It all began when the owner of housecleaning service Men Clean Too started seeing empty shelves where toilet paper used to be at the local grocer.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” he recalls.

Since he owned his own business, Steward could buy toilet paper in bulk at a discount. So he stocked up when stock was down for most everyone else.

Then he began giving it away.

A lot of people are disabled. A lot of people are laid off. I know it’s not much, but two rolls is two rolls.

Zachary Steward

“I first just started off going to the Walmart parking lot and giving everybody one roll of toilet paper, free, ’cause people need toilet paper, and I don’t know why people are hoarding it,” he says. “I have access to get it, so why not help people who are in need?”

Soon enough, he was hand delvering toilet paper to anyone who asked.

He put his phone number on Facebook and the Nextdoor app, and took two rolls to whomever texted him their address. Beginning in March, he made the rounds an average of 24 hours a week, rising at 4 a.m. to hit about 14 houses per route — all while working full-time.

He started near his home in the Northwest near Santa Fe Station and traveled all over the valley, going as far as the St. Rose exit on the 215 Beltway to make one delivery.

“The good thing is that I have a hybrid,” he says. “I put my music on, and I just go.”

He’s had many requests from the elderly, in particular.

“Usually, they just do their shopping when it’s time for them to do their shopping, at the first of the month,” Steward says. “They go, and there’s nothing there. I’m getting a lot of that. A lot of people are disabled. A lot of people are laid off. I know it’s not much, but two rolls is two rolls.”

By mid-April, he had given out nearly 800 rolls, all on his own dime, racking up the mileage and good will along the way.

Former truck driver Barbara Grantham created care packages for truckers and handed them out for ...
Former truck driver Barbara Grantham created care packages for truckers and handed them out for free at Mortons Travel Plaza in North Las Vegas. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @benjaminhphoto

Keeping truckers running on a full tank

The kids were grown, the house was empty and the highway called. Barbara Grantham answered.

Once her two children had left the nest, Grantham joined her trucker husband on the road, criss-crossing the country for 20 years, until they retired.

“I drove, too,” Grantham says of learning to pilot an 18-wheeler with her husband, who passed away in October. “I know what it’s like out there.”

She also knows how hard the daily routine became for the nation’s truckers once the coronovirus outbreak hit, pumping the brakes on an already demanding lifestyle.

Not only did scads of restaurants and rest stops close, but plenty of roadside fast-food joints that catered to travelers became drive-through only, and wouldn’t accept walk-ups, making it especially hard for truckers to simply find a place to eat.

Plenty of them had to stock up at gas stations, where Funyuns, hot dogs and other eats outnumber healthy offerings.

“It’s just junk food,” she says.

So she created care packages, paying for the supplies out of her own pocket, packing up boxes full of juice, water, crackers, cereal, tuna, soap, toothpaste and other necessities, and handed them out to truckers at the Petro Truck Stop in North Las Vegas. On two Saturdays in April, she gave out 65 packages.

“I knew there was a need. Some of the drivers are not well-equipped to be out by themselves. They might be new. They might just be tired. Some of them want to stay out because they don’t want to go back and bring anything to their family,” she says. “I just wanted to let them know that we still care. I wrote on the sides (of the boxes), ‘Driver-to-driver, we care.’ ”

Even though she’s left the road, the road hasn’t left her.

“My son keeps saying, ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you doing this?’ Because I can,” Grantham explains, noting that she planned to use her stimulus check to cover expenses. “I’m only living on social security, but it’s extra money. What am I going to do with it? Buy a couch? A new dress? A new pair of shoes?

“I decided to spend it on people.”

When foot traffic dropped off during the pandemic, paramedic Sarita Lundin was worried about th ...
When foot traffic dropped off during the pandemic, paramedic Sarita Lundin was worried about the homeless. So in her spare time, she went to them, providing essential supplies and health checks. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @benjaminhphoto

A voice for the voiceless

She noticed how empty the streets were. Streets that served as a home for those deprived of one.

A paramedic in both ambulance and hospital settings, Sarita Lundin lives downtown, where a significant portion of the city’s homeless are clustered.

When the pandemic began, she spotted an immediate difference in that community.

“Seeing a change in foot traffic, seeing a change in the people that I normally see out, it kind of got me concerned. ‘Is this population of people OK?,’ ” she wondered. “ ‘Do they have the resources they need?’ ”

When social distancing went into effect, a vulnerable community became that much more so.

The hand washing and having places to simply go to the bathroom, access to water — you can’t take a reusable cup into anywhere and fill it. If you don’t have the money to go in and buy a bottle of water, where are you going to go?

Sarita Lundin

What happens when you’re forced to live life by a thread and that thread is cut?

“When everything first hit, we saw some of the large shelters close because they didn’t want to be contributing to the spread,” Lundin says. “We have limitations on where people can stay. They’re seeing a change in the normal contributions that they might get from the community, being on the street corner or holding up a sign. There’s no foot traffic. The hand washing and having places to simply go to the bathroom, access to water — you can’t take a reusable cup into anywhere and fill it. If you don’t have the money to go in and buy a bottle of water, where are you going to go?”

And so she went to them.

Beginning in mid-March, Lundin joined local homeless charity Caridad, spending hours every week on the ground. She also assisted local charity, Food Not Bombs — serving as an on-call medical professional whenever needed — all while working the night shift at her paramedic job.

She took temperatures, looked for any signs of respiratory distress, provided medical advice and assistance, helped distribute care kits to anyone in need and educated those she encountered on safety protocols.

Perhaps just as important, she served as a sounding board for an oft-overlooked community, a voice for the voiceless.

“If you’re not out in the community and seeing what’s happening … I think there’s a lot of awareness that is lacking,” Lundin says. “There’s such a vital need to have people going out and making sure this community is OK.”

William Neal of Las Vegas used 3-D printers to make more than 1,000 masks, which he donated dur ...
William Neal of Las Vegas used 3-D printers to make more than 1,000 masks, which he donated during the pandemic. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @benjaminhphoto

Creating community to mass produce 3-D masks

It was just a cough, nothing serious, but its consequences could have been anything but — consequences that were never felt, thanks to the efforts of William Neal.

A worker at wine tech company Napa Technology, Neal also has a passion for 3-D printing, which he has been using to create protective face masks since the coronavirus outbreak began here.

His company’s CEO has a brother who is a doctor, and Neal sent him 30 to 40 face shields he produced.

“(The doctor) called me the other day and said that he was working on a patient,” Neal recalls. “He had to get a tube down the guy’s throat. (The patient) was positive for covid-19. He ended up coughing, and all of that went on the face shield.

“That’s something that they didn’t have,” Neal says, “so if we had not printed it, he could have contracted COVID-19 at that point.”

That’s but one example of how Neal has used his hobby to generate hundreds of masks in a time of great need, working six days a week until 5 or 6 a.m.

And he hasn’t done it alone. Neal recruited a small community of family members, co-workers and others to aid the cause.

It began with a post on the Next Door app, with Neal offering to donate masks he printed to anyone in need.

Requests came flooding in.

Neal asked his CEO if he could use the company’s printer, too, and he quickly agreed. Next Neal enlisted the help of a local Friendly Hobbies store to print more masks.

“They started printing, and then maybe three or four days later, they reached out and said, ‘Hey, come get this printer, you can have another printer at home,’ ” he recalls. “So I grabbed that one, and after that, I bought two more from them.”

With four printers running almost constantly at home, producing roughly 12 masks every 90 minutes, Neal drafted his wife, brother and grandmother to help. He even contacted a man he sold a printer to, and asked him to pitch in.

“After that, more people started joining in,” he says. “It went from just a couple shields to almost like a full production” line.

By mid-April, they had made and donated nearly 1,000 masks to hospitals across the country, from Henderson to New York City, distances bridged by a cause close to home.

“To be able to see a community going up and people offering help has been the biggest thing for me,” Neal says. “It’s been absolutely crazy to see all these people come together.”

Donna West, from left, Jeana Blackman Taylor and Annette Magnus with donations in West's garage ...
Donna West, from left, Jeana Blackman Taylor and Annette Magnus with donations in West's garage food pantry in May. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Left_Eye_Images

A study in grassroots giving

There are green beans where her car used to be.

Cans and cans of them.

Paper towels, pasta sauce, cookies. Jeana Blackman Taylor’s garage has become a pantry — a pantry open to all.

“There’s just a lot of food in my garage right now,” Taylor says with mild awe. “It’s a little crazy.”

It’s Monday morning.

The food will be gone by Thursday — delivered to dozens of families in need around the valley. Fresh supplies will be purchased on Sunday, starting the process all over again.

Blackman Taylor’s home is one of three houses that form the Vegas Community Pantry, a study in grassroots giving.

The food will be gone by Thursday — fresh supplies will purchased on Sunday, starting the process over — delivered to dozens of families in need around the Valley, Blackman Taylor’s home one of three houses that forms the Vegas Community Pantry, a study in grassroots giving.

It all began in mid-March with Blackman Taylor’s friend Annette Magnus.

“I was talking to my husband and I was like, ‘We really should gather some additional stuff in our house just in case people need something during the pandemic,” Magnus recalls. “I put it on Facebook: ‘Hey, I have stuff in my house that’s extra. If you need help, no questions asked, let me know, I’ll bring it to you.’ ”

Blackman Taylor, a furloughed Cirque Du Soleil performer, saw Magnus’ post and decided to do the same, as did their mutual friend Donna West, chair of the Clark Country Democratic Party.

“I live in East Las Vegas, and so a lot of my neighbors are culinary members and people who work in the hospitality industry, and I knew that some of them may be hit hard, depending on what the casinos decided to do about their pay,” West says. “I grew up with a mom who grew up in the Depression, so I always had a full pantry in my house, just like my mom did. I just decided to go through my pantry and see what I could give.”

When you’re picking up four or five grocery bags from somebody’s garage, and then you’re taking it to somebody’s doorstep, and you know that you’re helping a family of 10 survive for a few more days, in some cases, there’s just something that’s very visceral about that.

Jeana Blackman Taylor

Combining forces, the trio soon were working with 15 to 20 volunteer drivers, making a combined 120 deliveries a week beginning in mid-March. In the first month, they served more than 650 families who signed up online.

“It is funny to go to Costco and be like, ‘Yeah, I’m buying $2,000 worth of groceries,’” says Magnus, who set up an online donation channel through her Battle Born Progress nonprofit to help cover expenses. “I have to tell the clerks at the store, ‘I’m not a hoarder, I swear to God. This is for the food pantry.’ ”

It all adds a personal D.I.Y. dimension to helping others.

“There are so many big organizations that are doing such important work on such a massive scale, but what we’re also seeing is that people want to be able to connect their volunteering to a more direct outcome,” Blackman Taylor says.

“When you’re picking up four or five grocery bags from somebody’s garage, and then you’re taking it to somebody’s doorstep, and you know that you’re helping a family of 10 survive for a few more days, in some cases, there’s just something that’s very visceral about that.”

The three women geared their efforts toward those who tend to fall through the cracks in times of crisis.

“This is serving a population of people who maybe don’t have cars, so they can’t go to Three Square, or it’s serving a population of people who … can’t get out of the house, because they’re elderly or they have pre-existing conditions,” Magnus says.

“I feel good about serving those gaps, because every single person deserves to eat, every person deserves to … be able to put food on the table for their kids. It is our responsibility to take care of neighbors. And that’s what we’re doing.”

West puts it more succinctly.

“To me, this is Las Vegas,” she says. “This is who we are. This is what we do.”

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