By Madison Lotenschtein
Tucked in the southwest cornfields of Iowa lies a 5,000-person town called Harlan — the epitome of small-town America. While many, if not most, global trends and crises have left Harlan unscathed, the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t.
While the virus spreads quickly through Iowa, Harlan’s high elderly population is at risk of contracting COVID-19.
Enter the Harlan Helpers.
Small Town, Big Heart
At home on spring break, Reagan Hansen, a junior at the University of Iowa, saw fellow students — younger, less-at-risk people — organize to run errands for quarantined elderly people. He figured his hometown could use that same kind of service, too. So he founded the Harlan Helpers.
The Harlan Helpers deliver groceries, drop off checks, buy stamps, give rides, and offer other services to demographics unable to break quarantine.
“I’m a healthy young guy,” Reagan said. “There’s plenty of people at home on break and plenty of people willing to help us out. So I decided to put some volunteers together and see if we could actually make something like this happen.”
The Harlan Helpers plan to establish a grocery service. The group also collaborated with Shelby County, where Harlan is, and the Chamber of Commerce to establish a phone bank, where volunteers answer phones to take grocery orders. And then another group of volunteers will shop for them and deliver their groceries.
The Harlan Helpers are also working with local grocery stores, like Hy-Vee and Fareway, as well as the Iowa Community Kitchen, where volunteers help deliver food to people in need every Monday. Reagan also connects people with the Western Iowa Food Pantry, the local food bank.
When Reagan first announced the project on social media, 20 people immediately signed up to help, and it soon grew to 35 volunteers strong. Many are young adults, some are middle-aged, but one especially stood out to Reagan: a 67-year-old man, who meets the demographic of at-risk individuals. He emailed Reagan, saying he wanted to contribute to the cause, despite his age.
“It’s just really astounding to me that so many people are willing to take time out of their days, because they’re struggling with the outbreak as well,” Hansen said.
Harlan is a rural-based community with a small population, but its small stature is proving to be an advantage for the Harlan Helpers.
“I think a big advantage that we have in a rural community is that so many people already know each other,” Hansen said. “It’s small town Iowa, so people are generally willing to help with something. I hope that we can inspire other groups to start up in different parts of rural Iowa.”
With the UI conducting virtual courses for the remainder of the semester, Hansen is staying in his hometown with the Harlan Helpers. He plans for the group to continue throughout the pandemic and become an established part of the community after the pandemic has run its course.
“There are still people who are elderly or don’t have means of transportation,” he said. “We can still have this volunteer group that works with the local government to assist people with grocery shopping, getting to work, and just providing food to them.”
Who knows — if they get more volunteers or if they start delivering basketballs, they might even consider changing their name to the Harlan Globetrotters. You heard it here first.
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