Young philanthropists are fighting the impact of COVID-19 with kindness

Their secret for making a difference: raising money for healthcare professionals, families in need, and struggling workers.


By Reed Alexander | @reedalexander

March 28, 2020

In these socially distant times, opening up our homes to those who are struggling might not be an option. However, we can still open up our hearts (and wallets).


As American healthcare workers grapple with severe shortages of masks, ventilators, and medical supplies, high-profile donors are stepping up. Bethenny Frankel of the “Real Housewives of New York” has rallied supporters to donate one million masks to medical workers. Hillary and Bill Clinton sent 400 pizzas to local area hospitals where they live in Westchester County, New York, to feed medical workers. And Drew Brees, the quarterback for the New Orleans Saints, pledged to donate $5 million to relief efforts in his home state of Louisiana, one of the hardest hit by the outbreak.


Brees announced his generous donation on NBC’s “Today” show on Friday, prompting host Hoda Kotb to say on air: “I think a lot of things are contagious, including generosity.”



Now, a phalanx of young philanthropists has emerged, raising funds online for desperately needed relief aid. On GoFundMe, some campaigns have gained impressive steam. The "A Million Masks" campaign, founded by a group of millennials including Harvard University grad and tech entrepreneur Ben Wei, is aiming to raise half a million dollars to donate N95 medical-grade respirator masks. The fundraiser is three-fourths of the way there, with more than $420,000 raised as of Friday.


Other fundraisers have generated more modest donations. Many have struggled to collect the cash they usually would, because small donors’ have largely had to scale back their budgets and reduce making discretionary donations during these challenging economic times. Nevertheless, one in three new fundraisers created on GoFundMe were related to coronavirus relief, the CEO of the platform told CBS News; and, earlier this week, the site told the New York Times that more than $60 million of virus relief aid had been raised.


Allegra Blinken, 26, a real estate professional in New York City, is one in a group of young, charity-minded fundraisers who have rushed into the breach to alleviate some of the economic pain. Last week, she launched a fundraiser to provide critical support for an Italian family in central Italy that has experienced severe financial hardship. Blinken reached her initial $5,000 goal in 24 hours. Feeling inspired, she decided to double it.


"I raised $10,000 in three days," Blinken says, largely drawing on small contributions from others who know the family personally. The family that will receive these funds housed Blinken when she partook in a study-away program for her art history degree as a junior in college. They are teachers who have an 11-year-old daughter; together, they have opened their home to dozens of international students over the past 20 years. "They're so warm and they're so genuine and everything they do is from their heart,” she says. Their home cooking stands out as one of her fondest memories. "It was always delicious,” she recalls.


Meanwhile, small business owners are battling to keep their staff on the payroll.


Franco Sampogna, 28, is the owner of Frevo, a stylish Greenwich Village restaurant that opened its doors just last year. Currently shut down with no date to reopen in sight, Sampogna has launched a GoFundMe campaign to collect $52,000. The objective for the funds is to pay two months' worth of salaries to his eight employees. Without it, the impact could be dire, he says: "Everybody's going to get into debt. [The staff are going to] max out credit cards, if they haven't done so already. Nobody's going to be able to pay rent."


Chef Franco Sampogna and his team pose at their Greenwich Village restaurant Frevo, which opened last year. Now, Sampogna is seeking to raise funds to keep his employ on staff during the economic freeze. PHOTO CREDIT: Frevo NYC


Donate to Frevo’s employee relief fundraiser to keep restaurant workers on staff here.

Lena Wu, 26, a consultant in New York City, started an online fundraiser to feed medical workers in city hospitals. She initially set out to collect $5,000 to buy meals from local restaurants serving takeout, and to have them delivered directly to hospitals like NYU Langone in Manhattan, Jacobi and Montefiore Medical Centers in the Bronx, and about a dozen others.


Wu blazed past her fundraising goal in two days, and set a higher bar: a $10,000 goal. About a week later, her fundraiser exceeded that too, so she's raised her target to $20,000, and the numbers keep climbing.


Once the donations come in, Wu distributes the money to restaurants in downtown New York City, with an emphasis on immigrant-owned businesses that have been suffering badly. There are no catered, communal meals: Social distancing requires that every meal that Wu orders is a standalone plate which medical workers can grab and take with them, without touching shared surfaces. Budgeting roughly $20 per plate, she's served 500 meals so far, and has no intention of stopping.


Donate to Lena Wu’s fundraiser to provide meals for medical workers here.


"The main question that I've heard is, 'Why this, and not masks?'" Wu says. "I say to that: Our medical workers are not just doctors. They're nurses and all of these other folks, and I want them to feel like someone sees them. I don't want to just give them what people think will save us — masks and protective gear. I actually want to make sure that they are taken care of."


Her advice to other young people who want to lend a hand: Check in with friends, neighbors, and loved ones to offer your help, where possible. “Continue to stay home,” she emphasizes, noting the importance of social distancing. And “start small,” she says — that is, “doing anything to help,” whether you’re helping one person or millions.


Bento boxes provided by Lena Wu through her fundraiser to feed New York City medical workers. These bento boxes and others were sourced from local area restaurants and delivered to hospitals battling COVID-19. PHOTO CREDIT: Lena Wu

For other great causes to support, consider pitching in a few dollars to campaigns like these:

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© 2020 by Alyssa Morlacci and Reed Alexander