During the past six weeks, thousands of Chelsea residents have answered the phone to hear a person say, in Spanish or English: “Hello, my name is ___. I am an employee at Massachusetts General Hospital, and I am also part of the Chelsea Pandemic Response Team. We are a group of city and Mass General staff working to support Chelsea residents through the COVID-19 crisis. While I am not a clinician, I have been provided with information to support you.”

That person—one of nearly two dozen volunteers from several Mass General departments—would go on to ask the resident if anyone in the household was sick or needed medical guidance; had difficulty accessing food; was undergoing a financial hardship; or had some other need or question, and the volunteer directed them to resources.

The people we’ve talked to have had a profound impact on us. These conversations were truly gratifying for both parties.

Tatiana Sultzbach
Director, International Services

During those six weeks, volunteers made about 6,000 calls to phone numbers provided by the city of Chelsea, a community of about 40,000 that has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. According to data from the first half of the project, about 9.4% of respondents said that they or someone in their home was sick; 11.7% did not have Internet access; 15% did not have adequate masks or cleaning supplies and 15% were food-insecure. Yet even among the respondents who said they were doing fine, many said they were grateful for the call.

“One woman sat by the phone waiting for me to call back,” says volunteer Amy Izen, a pediatric speech-language pathologist at MGH Chelsea HealthCare Center. “She said she never got phone calls and was thrilled someone was calling her.”

Says volunteer Danielle Karthik of the same department, “Many people I spoke to really appreciated the opportunity to ask questions. But some of these calls were hard, hearing what people were going through.”

A tremendous amount of groundwork had to be laid before volunteers could begin dialing between 7 am and 7 pm, seven days a week. Managing the project was Tatiana Sultzbach, director of International Services, who worked with the city of Chelsea to develop phone scripts and learn about resources, established workflows and trained volunteers in fewer than two weeks. Throughout the project, details—such as the locations of food pantries—kept changing, so she and volunteers kept in close contact, quickly becoming a well-oiled team.

Volunteers were not only impressed with the city of Chelsea’s coordinated efforts, but were also struck by its sense of community. “Chelsea is only two square miles; people know one another,” says Izen. “Neighborhood connectedness is a real value of the city, which is why this effort came about. As volunteers, we had an opportunity to reach out in new ways.”

Misty Hathaway, vice president of International and Specialized Services and chief marketing officer at Mass General, took on the project and made test calls with Sultzbach. “I like to say we weren’t on the frontlines but we were in the tents supporting those on the frontlines,” she says.

As for its effect on the volunteers? “It was a learning curve cold-calling and establishing trust. I’m happy to have developed that new skill set,” says Sofia Devine, a physical therapist at MGH Chelsea. “It was rewarding to provide people a little help regardless of their situation.”

Adds Sultzbach, “The people we’ve talked to have had a profound impact on us. These conversations were truly gratifying for both parties.”