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In Virus Crisis, People Find Purpose in Helping Others


This image released by Damien Escobar shows Escobar with medical staff at Queens Hospital in the Queens borough of New York.
In Virus Crisis, People Find Purpose in Helping Others
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In April, as the new coronavirus was attacking New York City, Susan Jones learned her older brother had been diagnosed with a blood cancer.

Her brother’s supervisor at work launched a campaign to help with medical costs. The supervisor set up a GoFundMe page on social media for donors. Jones shared it on Facebook. What happened next shocked her.

Jones was sure her closest friends would support the campaign. She works for the American Ballet Theatre, which is based in New York. And many of her co-workers — some she did not know very well — made donations. Their gifts came at a time of economic difficulties in a struggling dance community.

Jones found herself asking: Would the reaction have been the same just two months earlier, before the public health crisis? She was almost sure it would not. Instead, she thinks the desire to help shows, along with simple kindness, how people are working to make a difference. At a time of helplessness, she says, helping others makes a mark on a world that seems to be overwhelming all of us.

“People everywhere are trying to keep control of their lives … to preserve who they are,” Jones told The Associated Press.

Laurie Santos is a psychology professor at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. She also teaches the school’s most popular class to date: “Psychology and the Good Life.” Santos notes that lots of research shows helping others can often make us happier than spending that same time or money on ourselves.

“Taking time to do something nice for someone else,” she says, “is a powerful strategy for improving our well-being.”

This May 1, 2020 photo shows Susan Jones in New York.
This May 1, 2020 photo shows Susan Jones in New York.


Damien Escobar is a violin player living in New York. He stopped working as a traveling musician because of the coronavirus. One recent day, he was going to a neighborhood drugstore when he saw a homeless man outside.

Escobar, who was once homeless himself, was about to give the man money until he recognized what the man was really seeking: a face mask. The man needed it so he could enter the store and buy water and supplies. Escobar also found that employees at a nearby parking garage were asking for extra masks.

“There was a huge need here,” he said. He had already been getting protective equipment to emergency workers, raising $50,000 from a charity performance. Now he has turned to a new campaign, called “Masks for the Masses,” to get masks to homeless individuals and poor families.

“I’m essentially unemployed. I make my money on the road. If I weren’t doing this, I’d probably be stuck at home battling … depression,” he says. “They say once you get … into the world of someone else, your problems don’t really exist anymore.”

Catherine Lewis is an expert on the science of human behavior and the mind. She has often found people are happier when they can take action.

“In the work of trauma, we know that people who have good outcomes are the people who are doing something,” she says. “The hardest piece is when you are stuck, confined, frozen.”

There are a growing number of examples of people helping people. However, that does not mean that traditional philanthropy is in good shape.

“Sure, individuals and some nonprofits are stepping forward to help,” says Marcia Stepanek, a professor at Columbia University in New York. But for the most part, she says, recent studies of nonprofits show that donations are notably dropping because of donors’ concerns about the economy as well as the job market.

Still, many individuals are finding, in the process of reaching out to others, not only satisfaction and purpose but also perhaps a way to claim their identity. That is how Susan Jones sees it. Friends and coworkers have donated nearly $6,000 to her brother’s care.

She adds: “I’m feeling deeply touched to be on the receiving end of that.”

I'm Pete Musto.

Jocelyn Noveck reported on this story for The Associated Press. Pete Musto adapted this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

diagnose(d) – v. to recognize a disease or illness in someone

overwhelm(ing) – v. to affect someone very strongly

preservev. to keep something in its original state or in good condition

strategyn. a careful plan or method for achieving a particular goal usually over a long period of time

maskn. a covering for your face or for part of your face

parking garagen. a building in which people usually pay to temporarily store their cars and trucks

trauman. a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems usually for a long time

confine(d) – v. to prevent someone or something from going beyond a given limit or area

philanthropyn. the act of giving money and time to help make life better for other people

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