Northeast: Nonprofit Expands Services as Pandemic Continues

Helping Hand, a nonprofit in Northeast Philadelphia, is expanding its services after a year of successful operation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Natalya Polyakova performs a Covid-19 swab test on Feb. 26, 2021. Photo by Victoria Langowska

Helping Hands has moved to a bigger location and is now open three days a week, offering not only boxes of food but free COVID-19 testing, job finding assistance and additional resources.

Ella Karlitsky and Natalya Polyakova, the founders of Helping Hands, started the mission because they saw a need in their community. Now a year in, they streamlined the process in an attempt to make it even more convenient for people to seek and receive help. Their new online registration system provides time slots and tickets which eliminate the long lines that used to wrap around the building.

A Helping Hands volunteer wheels boxes of food.

“Today people have no jobs, the economy is not stable,” Karlitsky said. “A lot of people are out of work because children still don’t go to school. Due to that, a lot of people are in need. We not only help with food, we help them pay the rent pay utilities, anything we can. For some we’re trying to find jobs or even register them to unemployment.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that Philadelphia has experienced an almost 7% decrease in job count and numbers are still dwindling.

Language barriers are another significant obstacle for the different populations in Northeast Philadelphia. With so much misinformation circling around online and within non-English speaking groups, it’s hard to navigate resources.

“A lot of people here are elderly,” Maya Konviser, the financial director for Helping Hands, said. “They don’t speak English, they don’t have internet. The people come confused, they don’t understand where to get a vaccine or where to get testing. It’s so much mixed information and we try to educate them.”

Ella Karlitsky registering a new participant.

There is also a social stigma to ask for help. Many people feel too embarrassed to admit they’re experiencing food insecurity. According to NPR, 1 in 4 households have experienced food insecurity as a result of the pandemic.

“Some people were embarrassed to come and admit they’re in need,” Karlitsky said. “I think it is a big part of the psychology of the Russian-speaking community. It’s a cultural difference. They grew up in the Soviet Union where the culture says you should not be asking for help, you should be sustaining yourself, that’s the mentality.”

Nelly Sazykina recently immigrated to the United States from Ukraine along with her family.

“We’ve been here for a year and this is a real good help,” Sazykina said. “We get fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, sometimes clothing. It helps us go from week to week.”

A family sifting through clothes.

The future of Helping Hands depends on its sponsors and volunteers. With the number of people in need growing, Karlitsky and Polyakova hope to receive governmental help in order to become more stable. Their organization has boosted the morale and engagement of the community. Boris Margolin, a local business owner, takes time off work in order to volunteer at Helping Hands.

“With Helping Hands, I noticed such a sense of community,” Margolin said. “It was amazing to see how many people were willing to come together during this time. It brought us together like a family.”

Natalya Polyakova speaking with new participants.

In the future, Helping Hands wants to provide free COVID-19 vaccinations as well as mental health services to those who are uninsured or can’t afford them.

“We don’t know year form year where we’re going to end up, but we feel responsible to be here because people count on us now,” Karlitsky said.

Text and images by Victoria Langowska.

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