We left Vancouver, Canada during a relentlessly rainy April in 2013. Packing up our two (at the time) young kids, we arrived to our new home in the suburbs of sunny San Diego, California. After months of dreary rain, the move was like going from black and white to technicolor broadcast. Everything seemed to glisten in this suburb called Carmel Valley, located thirty minutes north of downtown San Diego. From the abundance of luxury cars to the uniform homes with impeccable landscaping and HOA-mandated color palettes, everything was so shiny and perfect.
As a child of immigrants, I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Western Canada that was both ethnically and economically diverse. If my first-grade teacher asked me to draw a place that was the opposite of where I was raised, I would have drawn Carmel Valley.
Soon, we were invited to children’s birthday parties with organza covered chairs and three-tiered cakes. “This is fancier than our wedding,” I whispered to my husband, as I discreetly placed our gifts wrapped in recycled brown paper with a homemade card on the table. Our pale vitamin D-deprived Vancouver skin eventually took on a bronzed SoCal glow. We started to settle into a comfortable suburban life.
When the pandemic hit, no one escaped its impact. Even the charmed life in Carmel Valley was disrupted. Schools shut their doors, residents were locked down, and we collectively caused and suffered from a local toilet paper shortage. As the days and months passed, unemployment numbers and food bank lines grew across the country. Stories of people desperately waiting over six hours to get food became regular news. While many experienced shortages, others were stockpiling food and supplies. This display of scarcity and abundance wasn’t the only pandemic dichotomy. People were balancing precariously between hunger and fullness, isolation and connection.
The pandemic revealed a lot of things for our family, like just how vital toilet paper is to our survival and how surprisingly reluctant we are to even contemplate alternative methods should we ever run out. Or, how often the adults in the family mutter swear words to ourselves to the delight of tattletale children who are always home watching and judging us. More importantly, the pandemic uncovered just how precarious our own financial security is. Despite our relatively stable jobs, I knew that we were just like millions of others. We, too, were a bad car accident, a serious health diagnosis or a few missed paychecks away from one day needing support ourselves.
For Thanksgiving, I tried to find a charitable organization to volunteer at to serve a holiday meal or sponsor a family in need of support. No one was offering Thanksgiving meal services because of COVID-19 restrictions so I reached out on social media to ask if anyone knew where I could help. Unexpectedly, I received a private message from a Carmel Valley mom. She said she was embarrassed to ask, but her family was going through some tough times, and would I sponsor them? I immediately replied, “Yes!” and asked if she knew others in the neighborhood who were struggling too. She said she knew many who were hit hard by the pandemic and who could use some support.
This exchange launched me into a flurry of text messages with friends and neighbors. I asked them if they could sponsor a Thanksgiving meal for a neighbor. The answer was always a resounding yes. A week later, I named this community effort “92130 Cares” after our zip code, and started a Facebook group that grew to over 800 neighbors overnight. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was joining a growing phenomenon of people around the world compelled by the pandemic to take action through mutual aid and support. No red tape or government inefficiencies, just people helping people.
As I met more neighbors in need of support, I discovered many low-income and affordable housing communities in our zip code. In fact, these housing communities were built to be integrated into the surrounding neighborhoods so you would never notice them. Nine housing communities, totaling over 700 units, were hiding in plain sight among luxury homes. Despite the physical integration of these communities, there has been no effort to truly integrate the residents, emotionally or socially, into the larger community. I faced an uncomfortable truth: I lived in Carmel Valley for eight years and didn’t know anyone who lived in the low-income or affordable housing communities. In fact, I frequently decried the lack of diversity in my community. Clearly, I wasn’t looking hard enough.
I was connecting with more neighbors and listening to their stories. Their experiences mirrored those across the country: hardworking families who lost their jobs and businesses; parents struggling with work while supervising kids’ virtual learning; isolation and loneliness felt by many, especially seniors; hunger and food insecurity. Suddenly, these were not people suffering somewhere else, but right here, in our own community.
With the help of six incredible women I met along the way, we signed up 145 neighbors for Thanksgiving meals. They were each matched with a neighbor who provided a pre-made meal, groceries or gift cards to a local restaurant or grocery store. We did this again in December, where 110 neighbors were provided holiday meals and gifts directly from their neighbors. After months of pandemic living where I felt more lost and disconnected with each passing day, I longed for connection and a purpose. The overwhelming response from my neighbors who wanted to join the efforts of 92130 Cares told me that they were feeling the same way too.
In a community that seemed so abundant with wealth and resources, I was surprised to learn that so many of my neighbors do not have regular access to food. There are no food banks or food pantries in the community. Seeing this need, we reached out to local grocery stores to ask them to donate their nearly expired, but still fresh, food to distribute in our community. Many denied our request, but with our special brand of annoying persistence, we succeeded in having a few stores agree. As a result, every Sunday morning for the past two months, a small army of volunteers, including families and children, meet at a low-income housing community. They set up tables that are loaded with fresh fruit and produce, pre-packaged meals, bread, and other donated food items. If you didn’t know any better, you would think it’s a weekend farmer’s market. Neighbors are invited to take what they need and shop with dignity.
Beyond providing food, these initiatives are allowing people to make meaningful connections with each other. In a time of extreme isolation bought by the pandemic, neighbors are connecting with each other without regard to social, cultural or economic differences. Young families brought holiday meals to Russian-speaking seniors. People learned where to buy halal holiday food for their neighbors. Someone with Celiac disease sponsored a neighbor with the same condition because she knew the dietary restrictions firsthand. Neighbors are connecting in Farsi, Spanish, Russian, and American Sign Language.
Emotional hunger in our community has proven to be just as strong as physical hunger. I recently watched a show where individuals compete to survive alone in the wilderness for as long as possible. I learned that there are humans who are far more resilient and tougher than I could ever be and yet surprisingly, many contestants quit, not because of the harsh environment or lack of food, but because of the loneliness from isolation. The isolation that many have felt this year has resulted in a craving for meaningful connection and community. The pandemic revealed just how vulnerable we all are, both physically and emotionally. The need for the support of neighbors and community to get us through difficult times has never been greater. Let’s all start from here.
Photography by: Cheryl Hsu