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Meet the Americans who are canceling everything but kindness

Forget the toilet paper wars and price gouging. Let us count the ways COVID-19 is bringing out the best in Americans.

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Illustration by Michelle Budge

SALT LAKE CITY — Yes, some people are snatching packages of toilet paper out of the hands of strangers. Yes, some people are hoarding essentials in hopes of profiting from others’ desperation.

But not everyone.

Faced with a pandemic that threatens to upend our way of life for weeks, if not months, other Americans are loving their neighbors — and strangers — in extraordinary ways.

From the California surfer who set up a toilet paper exchange with a hand-lettered sign to the Maine landlord who said he wouldn’t collect rent from his tenants next month, individuals are stepping up to help others, heeding social media’s call to cancel everything but kindness. It’s a call that has even gone out from the United Nations, which on Monday tweeted a reminder that everyone is affected by the pandemic.

“Be empathetic,” the tweet said. “We all need support, compassion and kindness.”

As in the weeks following 9/11, Americans are beset by fear and uncertainty and, for some families, grief. Many are facing a significant loss of income from reduced hours or layoffs and other economic fallout from social distancing. Others are working at home while trying to supervise children and care for elderly loved ones. And many others are suffering symptoms of COVID-19, yet unable to see a doctor or be tested.

In fact, with government officials announcing new closures and restrictions by the hour and stores running low on staples, it’s hard to find someone whose life hasn’t gotten more difficult in recent weeks. But America is also full of people who are coping by caring.

For example, in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, two women gave new meaning to “toilet papering” a house. They left rolls of toilet paper on the front steps of all the houses on one street. One recipient, posting about this on Facebook, said, “How awesome was that? I didn’t get their names, but I hope they read this and know how thankful everyone is. See how it’s done?”

The trend isn’t only on American soil. Canadians are setting up Facebook groups to promote “caremongering.” In the U.K., the family of a man who died with a positive COVID-19 test has asked that people forgo flowers and instead perform acts of kindness.

Not sure how you can help? Maybe you can get inspiration from these people.

The rent forgiver

In Portland, Maine, landlord Nathan Nichols wrote on Facebook that he realizes that service and hourly workers are being hit hard by social distancing and government restrictions. Because of this, he said he notified his tenants that he would not be collecting rent in April. “I ask any other landlords out there to take a serious look at your own situation and consider giving your tenants some rent relief as well.”

The big tippers

One customer at Coaches Bar and Grill in Columbus, Ohio, spent less than $30 but left a $2,500 tip, writing on the check that it should be equally divided between five employees, Cliff Pinckard of Cleveland.com reported. Similarly, in Houston, a diner left a $9,400 tip to help make up the wages that will be lost when the restaurant is closed, according to a report from ABC13. And it’s not just wait staff getting extra money. In Williston, Vermont, grateful parents collected more than $6,000 to give to the janitors who sanitized their children’s schools, according to April Barton of the Burlington Free Press.

The grocery shoppers

Rebecca Mehre of Bend, Oregon, wrote on Twitter about how she bought groceries for an elderly couple who were sitting in their car, afraid to go into the supermarket for fear of exposure to the virus. “I know it’s a time of hysteria and nerves, but offer to help anyone you can. Not everyone has people to turn to,” Mehre wrote. (Even some grocery stores that normally offer home delivery are suspending the service temporarily.)

On his blog, New York author Jon Katz wrote that he and his neighbors have been doing that for weeks at a supermarket in Bennington, Vermont. “Elderly people sit near the front of the store, waving money out of their car window, yelling for people to help them shop,” Katz wrote, adding, “I love that everyone who passes by agrees to take the money and buys the groceries and brings them out and never takes a dime for it. One of the couples told me no one had ever turned them down.”

The spreadsheet maker

Erica Etelson, a writer in Berkeley, California, wanted to match people in need of help with people who are able to help. So she created a spreadsheet and started spreading the word, according to Kate Darby Rauch, writing for Berkeleyside. By Monday afternoon, more than 150 people had volunteered on “The Bay Area Mutual Aid Network” to do things ranging from shopping to food preparation to pet-sitting to just talking with people who are lonely on the phone.

The performers

Two children in Clintonville, Ohio, got dressed up and took their cellos over to the house of a neighbor who was self-isolating, where they performed a concert on her front porch. The children played for nearly a half-hour, according to Holly Zachariah, reporting for the Columbus Dispatch. “It was so delightful. It was a little cold but I just put on an extra coat,” said the audience, 78-year-old Helena Schlam.

The spreaders of light

It started in California, but has spread to New York. People are putting up Christmas lights to bring light and cheer in a difficult time. Others are buying gift cards from beauty salons, restaurants and other businesses that will have to close temporarily, providing some much needed cash. Families with young children stuck at home are making cards and art to send to nursing homes that are no longer allowing visitors.

The babysitters

With working parents scrambling to deal with the challenges presented by the sudden and indefinite closures of schools, a high school senior in North Carolina stepped up to help. Taika Sorjonen, a senior at Northern Guilford High School in Greensboro, has created a free babysitting service for parents affected by the pandemic by recruiting volunteers in her community. She told WFMY that she was inspired to do this by one of her teachers.

“My political science professor is a single mom, and I was just thinking about her in this situation,” Sorjonen said. “People who work hourly, or have multiple jobs, or just several kids and are a single mom or single dad — how can I help those people so they can keep on functioning?”

The toilet paper exchanger

Motivated by stories of people fighting over toilet paper, Jonny Blue, a physical therapist in Encinitas, California, made a sign that said “Share Your Toilet Paper” and started waving it at an intersection in his town. People first started honking their horns; then they started dropping off toilet paper. When people stopped and said they couldn’t find any, Blue gave them some.

“I think people want a sense of community,” Blue told Rob Nikolewski of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

“When things are really challenging, people are looking to band together and be unified. It feels like I kind of struck on a common theme where people were thinking, ‘Why are people hoarding toilet paper?’”

He added, “I just want to encourage everyone to be better. Difficult times can reveal us to ourselves and help us see ourselves more clearly.”