A group of students at Dartmouth College are doing their part to ensure that no frontline worker struggles to obtain essential items during the coronavirus pandemic — one donor match at a time.
Back in March, roommates Amy Guan and Rine Uhm helplessly watched as their spring semester and summer plans crumbled due to the pandemic.
“We ended up losing internships, I lost my in-person graduation, but at the same time, it was hard to be sad about these losses with everything else going around in the world,” Guan, 21, tells PEOPLE. “We would spend a lot of time reading the news and sharing stories that we found interesting about the risks and struggles that essential workers have been facing.”
“The more we read, the more we realized that there was a lack of access to basic necessities that a lot of other people might have lying around their house or might have panic-bought at the beginning of the pandemic,” she continues.
It was that idea that ultimately led the women to develop Give Essential, an online program that matches struggling essential workers to donors around the country who are willing to provide household items, cleaning supplies and other basic necessities.
“We figured, why not find a way to connect these resources to the people who actually need them?” says Guan, who graduated from Dartmouth this year and has since focused her efforts on running the program.
The idea for Give Essential first came to Guan and Uhm as they were texting on April 8. Over the next two days, Guan says she worked on building the website, while Uhm wrote out the content. By April 10, they had launched the site.
The following day, the roommates were stunned to learn that over 300 workers had expressed interest in receiving help from donors overnight after reading about the program on various Reddit and Facebook groups.
“It was kind of insane,” says Guan, who later helped recruit several of their friends — fellow Dartmouth students Kaitlyn Kelley, Cindy Shen, Luiza Odhiambo, Kristie Chow and Cindy Zhu, as well as Case Western Reserve University graduate Crystal An — to get involved with Give Essential.
The program works by having donors and essential workers sign up individually, with each indicating what they need or what they can provide. Workers who express interest must submit proof of their need, such as their last pay stub or a work schedule.
From there, the Give Essential team verifies that the worker is eligible for help before matching them with an appropriate donor.
Give Essential A child with some of the items that were donated
RELATED: Stories of Essential Workers & Everyday People Doing Heroic Deeds During the Coronavirus Pandemic
Donors can provide items across six categories — cleaning supplies, masks, personal hygiene products, feminine hygiene products, kids’ activities, and gift cards — and though it’s mostly a one-time thing, some donors have requested to do biweekly shipments to their essential worker.
Those who may be interested in helping but don’t necessarily have the means to do so can contribute by serving as a volunteer. This entails finding other people who may be interested in the program, as well as organizing drives in their neighborhoods to collect essential items.
“The personal part of the process and that personal connection between essential workers and donors really makes us stand apart,” explains Shen, 21, a rising junior who currently serves as Give Essential’s head of design.
“It’s been really cool to see how generous people can be and just how kind people are,” adds Guan. “We’re just trying to help as many as possible.”
Give Essential Some of the items collected for essential workers
Since launching in April, Give Essential has reached over 12,000 essential workers and donors combined across 49 states. It’s also managed to raise the equivalent of nearly $500,000 in donations, recruit over 100 volunteers nationwide and establish partnerships with dairy farms in Vermont as well as homeless shelters in Philadelphia.
“I think, especially with the quarantines and social distancing, it’s been easy to feel constrained, but Give Essential has served to facilitate these impactful connections beyond these limitations,” Guan shares. “It’s been amazing fostering these forms of community, even despite such an uncertain time.”
Looking ahead, the students are hoping to expand their platform and create more partnerships with businesses and community organizations that have similar goals to Give Essential. In order to get there, Guan created a GoFundMe page, which has raised over $6,700 so far.
“We’re really looking forward to continuing this project and seeing how much more we can expand,” Guan explains. “For me, one of the best parts has been knowing that I’m part of a larger community that truly wants to make a meaningful impact.”
RELATED VIDEO: Michigan Family Is Delivering Smiles to Essential Workers One Pizza at a Time
Michigan Family Is Delivering Smiles to Essential Workers One Pizza at a Time
Shalinder Singh and his family have paid for and delivered over a thousand pizzas since early April
In addition to helping others, the students say this project has provided some valuable insight into the good of humanity and just how impactful one small action can be.
“The biggest takeaway for me was that people genuinely just want to help and that there is a sense of altruism in everyone,” explains Shen. “I always knew that people wanted to help out, but I don’t think I ever really knew how much people were willing to give until I joined Give Essential.”
Adds Guan: “We’ve been able to see how much of a difference one small gift or gesture can make. Being willing to speak out, act and do something — no matter how small — can make a really big difference.”
As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.