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Debra Lesin Elliott of Woodland Hills is a nurse practitioner who works with patients with diabetes. And while she feels lucky that she can avoid exposure to the virus by engaging in telemedicine, she worries about her frontline colleagues.
“I really wanted to do something,” Elliott said. “While searching the internet and Facebook and asking for opportunities to help contribute to the cause, I came across RVs 4 MDs.”
The newly formed Facebook group is now pairing RV owners with frontline health workers caring for patients with COVID-19 who need temporary housing away from their families.
Debra and her husband Chris had an idle 23ft Class C motorhome on the street.
“We use it almost exclusively for music festivals; it’s kind of our summer entertainment, ”said Chris. “Of course they were all canceled this summer. It’s like a musical instrument sitting down without playing. We weren’t going to use it. It just seemed like the only logical thing to do.”
The RVs4MDs group was launched on March 24. It was then that a woman from Texas, Emily Phillips, took to Facebook to seek housing assistance for her husband, an emergency room doctor. A woman named Holly Haggart, whom she had never met, answered her call and the two became friends and founders of the group. On Memorial Day, they matched 1,460 frontline healthcare workers with borrowed recreational vehicles.
“These are people doing this 100% for free out of the goodness of their hearts,” said Amber Bouton, an RVs4MDs matchmaking volunteer. “Not a dime is traded. They do it to save lives.”
The Elliott’s were halfway through an RVs4MDs first game. The other half? Megan and Chris Negrete, from Whittier.
Chris is also a nurse practitioner who was returning to work in early April after a scheduled time off. The couple have a 6-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old boy. Megan Negrete suffers from asthma, a potential risk factor for the disease. So they were desperate to find a safe place for Chris to live away from the family.
“We had about a week to find out before he returned to work,” Megan says. “And it started to make him really nervous being with us, so we pretty quickly started looking for a place. It’s like, where is he going to go?”
Thanks to the Elliott’s decision to loan out their RV, he didn’t have to go far at all.
“Within 24 hours we had it in our driveway,” Megan said. “They took it apart and put it all in, taught us how to use it, and it’s been great ever since.”
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Chris Negrete said living at home, despite being down the aisle, provides an almost normal family existence.
“Usually I come home when the kids are napping,” he said. “And then I take a shower and the kids wake up. They play outside and I go out with them, but I socially distance myself from them.”
And it’s a challenge for everyone, both emotionally and – often – logistically, especially when it comes to a toddler.
“Sometimes he forgets about social distancing and sometimes I have to run away from him because he’s running towards me,” Chris laughs. “But, you know, sometimes it’s hard for them to process. And it was hard for them.”
The difficulty became evident to the couple on May 15. That’s when the Airforce Thunderbirds flew over southern California to honor COVID-19 workers. Chris couldn’t be there; he was working. Megan says that when the flyby happened, their daughter, Noeline, cried because she missed a family life that – for now – is on hold.
“They’ve lost an innocence that a lot of kids still have,” Megan said. “But I also love that the hearts of my children are softened for others.”
And there are other valuable experiences the pandemic has brought to her children – not the least of which is a testament to the Elliott’s generosity. Debra Elliott says that in the weeks since they dropped their RV in Negretes Alley, they’ve developed a friendship they’re sure will last.
“We can’t wait to get them in for a swim,” she said, adding that she encouraged them to take a few days and camp at Malibu State Park before returning the RV.
When it will be is uncertain. But for now, said Chris Negrete, he’s grateful to have safe accommodation just yards from his front yard, where he can watch his children play, even from a distance.
Stephanie O’Neill’s reporting is supported by a Journalism Fellowship at the Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado, Boulder funded by Direct relief, a non-profit humanitarian aid group.
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