Mrs. Julieta, a 90-year-old from Caracas, Venezuela, dances with joy and thanks every time Vicente brings her a bag of food. This week he had the joy of receiving prepared cheese, rice, pork and roast, soup and bread, among other foods. Like her, 400 “grandparents” – as Venezuela's older adults are commonly called – receive weekly food packages, thanks to the Good Neighbor Plan.
The social distancing measures issued by the government on March 16, following the world health crisis, are aimed at reducing the spread of the virus. However, other difficulties have arisen. How do members of the population become more vulnerable to acquire food, if they fear going out and have no one to do it for them, and if they also do not have the necessary resources to buy it?
Two days after the measures were issued, in Caracas, a group of citizens created the Good Neighbor Plan, whose objective is to bring food to older adults who are orphaned. In Venezuela, the word “orphanhood” is used by some organizations and media to designate older people whose family members had to migrate as a consequence of the Venezuelan socio-political and humanitarian crisis, and who do not have state support. According to the Venezuelan NGO Convite, almost a million older people have been left alone, following the exodus of their families.
Yuraima Mercado, a logistics member of the Plan, tells Global Voices that, after the shops and restaurants closed, as part of social isolation measures, some restaurants were left with large amounts of food that they could not sell. The founder of the Plan, Verónica Gómez, who knows some of the representatives of these restaurants, organized a project that would allow these foods to be distributed among older adults.
Veronica was in charge, from the beginning, of creating and structuring the Good Neighbor Plan. She was joined by Valentina García and Yuraima in the organization of the Plan. Little by little, other friends and acquaintances have been added, who collaborate packing, lending equipment and kitchens or distributing, especially on their own motorcycles, the food “combos”.
Among them is Vicente Velutini, the member of the Plan whom Mrs. Julieta dances every time she sees him arrive. Vicente is in charge of collecting and distributing donations. It also organizes the logistics of the routes that the distributors follow, trying to take care of the gasoline they use – a good currently in high shortage in Venezuela – and which they also receive as a donation.
Vicente reflects with Global Voices on the impact of the Good Neighbor Plan for a country like Venezuela:
We cannot cure poverty, but we can do a grain of sand and help the people who need it most, who are many in the country. For now, we are dedicated to a small group: the most needy “grandparents”.
The project that was born from Veronica's initiative and goodwill, today has approximately seven delivery men, three people in the kitchen and five in logistics, all collaborating on a voluntary basis. They are part of a “gear”, as Vicente defines it.
Deliveries, which initially included a lunch and depended on food contributions from a few restaurants, now consist of packages with 10 or more products and five prepared meals, thanks to various contributions from companies and civil society. Yuraima points out that, currently, the Good Neighbor Plan provides combos to 100 “grandparents” per day, 400 per week.
The growth has been such that, currently, “the Plan is 100% sustainable”, according to Yuraima. They claim that, in 15 days, they will be able to pass 1,000 meals a week. For this reason, Vicente anticipates that “intelligent growth, rapid learning and adaptation to changes” are key tools for the Plan's evolution process. Another essential tool has been the use of social networks – a resource widely used as an informative alternative in Venezuela.
The presence of the Good Neighbor Plan on social networks has evolved like a “snowball”, considers Vicente, who remembers how at the beginning the members of the Plan used the networks to ask for donations, whereas, today, they are the users from networks who contact them, offering useful products. The Plan has been possible thanks to the coordination between the dedicated work of its members, the solidarity collaboration of Venezuelan society and the use of technology. A whole “co-production”, as Yuraima describes it.
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Despite being a spontaneous citizen initiative, Plan members follow carefully designed procedures to achieve their goals. They receive, from neighbors, information about older adults in a state of orphanhood, which they must verify to proceed to register them in the database. After being located, they talk with them about the Plan and define the routes to make deliveries. If the elderly have a family or someone who helps them and can buy their food, they are not eligible for the Plan.
They have also developed another strategic option: designate residents of buildings with a high concentration of older people, who are responsible for distributing the combos, in order to reach more beneficiaries and diversify the tasks. In addition, as Vicente explains, deliveries are made following strict hygiene protocols, under the advice of a biosafety specialist, which includes keeping physical distance, disinfecting and carefully packing food, and wearing gloves and masks.
Yuraima and Vicente agree on the intention that the Good Neighbor Plan transcends the situation of COVID-19 and that it even manages to expand to other areas of the country.
Vicente sums it up with a spirit of hope and resilience:
Out of every tragedy and every chaos wonders can arise.
A marvel. Without a doubt, this is the Good Neighbor Plan for the 400 Venezuelan “grandparents” who benefit from it, in the midst of an unprecedented global health crisis that coexists with the worst humanitarian crisis the country has faced.