How to lend a hand while social distancing

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Volunteers in Montecito after the 2018 debris flow. Photo courtesy of Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade.

With some newfound time on your hands during the COVID-19 outbreak, you may want to help those in need. But how do you do that while staying a safe six feet away? 

We get tips from Abe Powell, executive director of the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade . His group was born out of the debris flow in Montecito, which killed 23 people and damaged and destroyed hundreds of homes. The group is now mobilizing volunteers to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Different crisis, different approach

“The original approach to the mudslides was get people together, give them safety training and deploy them in big groups,” says Powell. “Now, we have to do the opposite of that: train people remotely and maintain social distancing. That creates a little wrinkle in the program, but it's entirely doable once people get their head around how to cooperate and coordinate within the context of maintaining safe space and social distancing.”

Build neighborhood teams

“One of the most important things in any kind of disaster is neighborhood communication,” says Powell. “For example, some neighborhoods like mine have an email tree. I have a woman on my block named Delena who reached out to the group and said, ‘Hey, I know people are social distancing. Who needs stuff? I can pick things up for you.’ So people sent her stuff that they were interested in getting. And instead of everybody from our neighborhood shopping, she went out, did a shop, put a plastic bag outside my house, then left it there.”

Tips on how to shop for neighbors. Graphic courtesy of Abe Powell.

You could also create a private Facebook group for your block or invite people to communicate on

Help the elderly, homeless, less digitally savvy

“An elderly person who is isolated and maybe has no access to technology, hopefully there's one person in their neighborhood that knows them and is friendly with them,” says Powell. “I hope that that person would knock on the door, back away six feet, and wait for them to come out and say, ‘Hey, I'm here for you. Do you need anything? Here's my phone number if you need to get in touch with me.’ Almost everybody has a phone.”

If they don’t answer the door or aren’t there, drop a letter in their mailbox with your address and phone number.

A sample letter you could drop in your neighbor’s mailbox. Graphic courtesy of Abe Powell.

Join a local volunteer group

The Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade was created to prepare for and respond to natural disasters and community crises. Find a group with a similar mission that’s light on their feet and responsive.

Right now, the Bucket Brigade is looking for volunteers to help distribute food to low-income kids during school closures and vulnerable populations like elderly people and those with preexisting health conditions.

You can sign up to volunteer here .

If it doesn’t feel safe, don’t do it

You may want to help as much as you can, but know your limit, both mentally and physically. Stay calm, stay in communication, and know when to tap out.




Matt Guilhem


Kathryn Barnes