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Raji Parameswaran and Kendra Wright are two vaccine helpers, otherwise known as vaccine angels.

That necessity breeds invention is never more true than in today's world, with regular Joes and Janes inventing creative measures to help their neighbors navigate the state's COVID-19 vaccine distribution process. And the results have been nothing short of "heavenly."

Tarrytown resident Barbara Ritchie placed her name on five different COVID-19 vaccine lists. She qualifies for phase 1B—older individuals and those with chronic health conditions—in the vaccine distribution effort as designated by the Texas Department of State Health Services. Group 1A consists of first responders and healthcare workers.

As with many other Austinites seeking a vaccine within the state's inadequate supply, Ritchie became frustrated searching for a time slot to get the vaccine, hitting "refresh" and "next" on websites for an hour and a half, with no luck. While on her community's Nextdoor site, she found someone who helped her get a vaccine jab earlier this month. But she noticed numerous Nextdoor members asking for help to navigate the vaccine application process while others offered advice, a system she called "disorganized" and "haphazard." Ritchie was determined to find a more efficient way.

"I thought, 'Here are people who need help and here are people who are willing to help, why not try to put together a list of (those) people?'" she said.

Barbara Ritchie coined the name "Scheduling Angels" after being helped by someone to schedule a vaccine appointment. (Barbara Ritchie)

A former IT project manager, Ritchie coordinated a database of contact information for community members who needed assistance finding a vaccine appointment as well as those offering to help, focusing on West Austin and Travis County neighborhoods including Rollingwood, West Lake Hills, Lost Creek, Tarrytown, Pemberton Heights and Balcones.

"The woman who helped me, when she got the appointment, I said to her, 'You are such an angel,'" she recalled. "That's how I felt. I started calling (the helpers) Scheduling Angels. Now everybody calls them that."

On Feb. 5, Ritchie posted the list on Nextdoor, along with three simple rules for communication, nearly tripling the number of "angels" on the list in less than a week. This week, she has up to 40 angels on her list.

"Some of them have children at home and jobs, they have lives, but they still find time, even if it's one or two people, to help," she said of the group's volunteers. "They do it out of the goodness of their heart."

With the program up and running—Nextdoor/General/Update-SchedulingAngels—Ritchie receives about 100 emails per day. Although she's online to respond to questions and provide updates, she leaves the scheduling up to the "angels."

"Unfortunately, because there's so much more demand than there are people available to help, schedules are filling up fast," Ritchie said. "Still, it's clear that there's a need for this kind of help for people and, particularly, for people over 70 (years old) because they didn't grow up with technology."

As with Ritchie, Rosedale residents Jim Robinson, 74, and his wife, Lana Norwood, 68, were among many Austinites who are frustrated trying to find COVID-19 vaccine openings in Central Texas's limited supply.

The couple took to social media and one of several Nextdoor sites seeking help on access to a shot. The method proved successful, with Robinson hastily hopping on his computer once news of a vaccine clinic posted. Both have now received their vaccines.

"Because of (the) post, we were able to get to the computer quick enough to get a couple of appointments," Robinson said. "I've seen a block of appointments go within 20 or 30 minutes. If a post is 30 or 40 minutes old, you might as well forget it."

Nextdoor has been outlet for vaccine news and helpers in the midst of a rocky rollout.

South Austin resident Raji Parameswaran said she's voluntarily spent the past few weeks helping others get vaccine appointments. Her "clients" have ranged from a local college professor to a retired judge who performs drive-through wedding ceremonies. She established six 200-member WhatsApp groups to disseminate news of vaccine openings and created vaccine hub accounts for seniors, sometimes making appointments for them.

"This has become my day job," Parameswaran said. A consultant by trade, she said that work has fallen by the wayside in light of the 10-12 hours per day she spends helping others get access to what could be lifesaving measures.

After assisting her elderly mother and father get their vaccines, she spread word of her success to friends who had parents in town, inundating her with others also hoping to nab a spot. Parameswaran's calendar soon filled up—solely by word of mouth—and she enlisted a few "amazing" friends to join her team to help, Parameswaran said.

"They feel very alone, very scared and anxious," she said of the seniors she helps. "All of these people, they're just delightful people. Everyone has a story."

As the proprietor of a company involved in ticketing concerts and large scale events put on hold during the pandemic, Bee Cave's Kendra Wright turned to her software and organizational skills to create a COVID-19 vaccine resource spreadsheet and 1,000-person email list. She updates those tools as she tracks changes in the distribution process. Like Parameswaran, she uses WhatsApp to communicate vaccine availability in real time.

"It's just one of the more rewarding things I've ever done in my life," Wright said.

After her parents, one of whom lives in an assisted living facility, received COVID-19 vaccines last month, Wright said she felt a weight had been lifted off of her shoulders and "wanted everyone to feel this feeling." Initially, she reached out to help seven acquaintances who qualified for the vaccine, researching the best route to find shots for them. Then she assisted 11 more applicants. Soon, she was texting with numerous vaccine groups at a time and currently has about 40 volunteers on board, none of whom Wright met prior to the endeavor.

"It just got so big so fast," Wright said. "It's gone viral and we've helped now thousands of people get vaccines."

She's instituted a "100 Club" within her network to acknowledge volunteers who have found at least 100 vaccines for individuals, adding that its membership includes "quite a few people."

Although the program began in the West Austin suburbs, through her volunteers, Wright has reached out to East Austin schools and churches to assist vulnerable communities. The most affected ZIP codes of COVID-19 have been on or straddle the east side of town, and residents may lack a computer to access online registration systems or the time to do so.

"I'm trying to give people hope," Wright said. "I'm trying to help them sort out the complexities of finding a vaccine."


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