The Covid 19 crisis is more than just a medical issue, as many people face poverty and hunger in the economic downturn. Fortunately, one young Latvian is organising his peers to help those most in need.

Reaching out

Nicknamed “the breadbasket of Latvia,” the southern region of Zemgale boasts fertile fields and cultural treasures like the Baroque masterpiece Rundāle Palace. But behind the glitter, many people are experiencing tough times.

Like other parts of Latvia, and indeed the world, the residents of Zemgale are suffering from the pandemic. But less often mentioned are the economic consequences of lockdown policies. Businesses have closed, people have been laid off, and the resulting drop in income means that some families can’t put food on the table.

Part of the solution can be found at a community centre in Īslīce, a village just outside Bauska, 60 kilometres south of Riga. Here, on a Sunday morning in January, a bunch of teenagers scurries around, bagging essential items for transportation to people in need.

Photo courtesy of Gints Jankovskis

Gints Jankovskis, the organiser of this busy band of youngsters, see this as part of a broader effort to make Latvia a better place.

“I get great satisfaction visiting families and seeing how over a month or two their situation has improved. And how our team has helped them,” he says.

Grocery run

Gints does not fit the typical image of a social worker. An athletic young man who talks at a hundred miles an hour, he’s a PR specialist by profession who currently keeps busy as a stay-at-home dad.

A few years ago, Girts and his brothers Raimonds and Mārtiņš set up Laiks jauniešiem (Time for Youth), an NGO providing educational activities and volunteering opportunities for young people. During the first Covid wave in spring 2020, Gints became aware that people didn’t have enough to eat and harnessed his team’s energies to help out.

They took a break over summer when life in Latvia returned to normal. But with the onset of the second lockdown, the need is there again. Like the first time, some 30 companies regularly donate food, toiletries and even furniture. The local council allows them to use the community centre as a base, since cultural events cannot be held there right now due to the restrictions.

Photo by Philip Birzulis

The group currently has about 800 regular clients in Bauska and Ķekava municipalities. According to Gints, the municipality is grateful to have a group able to respond to emergency situations without red tape. He says there are a variety of people seeking assistance. A few he classifies as lazy. Then there are those chronically in trouble due to addictions and family breakdown. Others have felt the wolf at the door more recently.

Since few of the volunteers have cars or drivers’ licenses, transportation is the one thing they lack. So I got behind the wheel and helped deliver packages, giving me the opportunity to meet some of the clients.

Photo by Philip Birzulis

Ruta, a foster mother in the village of Mežotne, was a woman of few words. But the present situation hasn’t affected her much, since there have been worse times in the past.

Zigrīda, one of several elderly residents from a single apartment block in Īslīce needing assistance, said it has always been difficult to pay the bills on their modest pensions. But now, several of her neighbours’ adult children have lost their jobs or are in quarantine, reducing social contacts and financial assistance.

For Monika in Pilsrundāle, a village just around the corner from the palace, this was her first time receiving a food package. She and her husband have been foster parents for many years, and are currently guardians for Rolands, a 13-year-old boy with multiple mental and physical disabilities, whom they regard as their own son.

Some time ago, her husband, an agricultural machinery operator by profession, lost a well-paying job in a plastics factory in Denmark. Back in Latvia, he helps out on his brother’s farm, but the family’s income has shrunk.

Adding to their financial worries, a year ago they bought a first-floor flat in the village to aid the mobility of wheelchair-bound Rolands. The renovations went way over budget, and the boy has requirements which also cost a lot of money. She says he has grown out of his clothes, and hopes the government lets people to go shopping for trousers and t-shirts again soon.

Still, she isn’t wallowing in self-pity. After taking her food package, Monika says she has an infant’s stroller at home which someone else might need.

“I want to be optimistic, and I hope over time things get better,” she says.

Helping hands

Neither Gints nor any of the other people receive payments for their efforts. But they give “101% of what we have” to the cause. The Bauska group has started partnering with likeminded people elsewhere in Latvia, and send stocks of the items donated to them to other parts of the country.

Photo by Philip Birzulis

Gints says the mission is to “teach people self-reliance, not just give them handouts.” So, a psychology and mentoring programme is also underway to help families in trouble get back on their feet. And he is certain that Latvians have the inner resources to get through the current crisis.

“When times are tough, the Latvian people have always rallied around to help each other out,” he says. “We have to stick together and build a better society.”

Philip Birzulis, 12.01.2021