Special Delivery

Two Stevenson juniors do their part to curtail the spread of COVID-19 on the Monterey Peninsula

It’s safe to say that juniors Bennett Bishop and James Nielsen didn’t know what was going to happen when they sent a letter out to the Stevenson mailing list on March 24, announcing that they were starting the Wenliang Initiative—a free service for elderly folks in Pebble Beach, Carmel, and Pacific Grove, who might need help getting groceries while in lockdown. All the boys knew was that they were, in Bennett’s words, “young, healthy, and licensed,” and felt it was “their duty” to help. 

At first Bennett and James wanted to offer their services to vulnerable locals four days a week, but Bennett’s mom, Marianne Ford, who works in the tech sector at Stanford School of Medicine, convinced them that four days of prowling the aisles at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Safeway, and Lucky’s, CVS, and Petco, would be too much exposure to the virus, and could possibly put vulnerable members of their families at risk. This turned out to be a wise choice on a number of fronts. 

“Even at two days, it does make it a bit harder to keep up with schoolwork and stuff,” Bennett, an Eagle Scout and a musician, says, “because our whole Wednesday and Saturday afternoon is spent on this. But James and I are happy to lose a few hours of sleep if it means we can help the rest of the community.”

Bennett credits his parents for teaching the boys how to try to stay safe by washing their hands before and after shopping, wearing masks and gloves in the store and while out on deliveries, and not touching their faces. “I think that by James and I going to the store and making deliveries with gloves and masks on, the overall chances of the virus being spread is a lot lower than if all of these people went to the store individually, bought their own stuff, and went back home. So we do everything we can, sanitary-wise, to stay safe.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom. “Although Bennett and I have to be careful and social distance from each other,” James says, “we are still managing to have fun with it while we’re shopping. The sense of purpose, and the fact that we’re actually helping people, makes it not feel arduous or cumbersome at all.”

The Wenliang Initiative was named for the late Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist in Wuhan, China who was the first person to warn the public about the SARS-like virus he saw among his patients. Dr. Wenliang came under fire from the Chinese government for speaking out, and later died from the infection. “When James and I talked about what we wanted to name the project, we decided that it would be good to try to honor his name and bring awareness to him, because he was trying to stop the spread of it by telling people. And that’s pretty much what we’re doing, too—we’re just trying to minimize the spread of it.”

The Wenliang Initiative began with a website vetted and made more user-friendly by both Bennett and James’ families. Customers can order their groceries online, or call-in the order. The boys then shop on Wednesdays and Saturdays, laying out the money on James’ parents’ credit cards. Clients pay them back using Venmo, PayPal, Cashapp, cash, or check. 

In their first week, Bennett and James had ten customers, and now they’re up to 30, some from the Church in the Forest, where Bennett’s grandmother, Lettie Bennett, is on the board. “I’m really proud of both of the boys,” she says. “I also feel some degree of concern for their being out and about in the world. But I know that they’ll be a blessing to all those who become their clients.”

One such client is a Carmel resident whose husband died almost exactly a year ago after spending five weeks on a respirator. When the boys dropped off her groceries, she told them, from her doorway, the story of her ordeal. “She just told us about her husband,” Bennett says, “and how he died a year ago, and how, because of that, she felt even more scared and worried about going to the store and being exposed. It definitely just made the whole thing a lot more real. You realize that we’re doing a lot more than saving people an hour of shopping during the day.”

What was once a good idea that two teenaged boys came up with to keep themselves busy, may end up easing anxieties and saving lives.

“One cool thing that happened,” Bennett says, “was just five minutes after I sent out that first school-wide email, I got a call from a member of Carmel’s City Hall who told me that they have volunteers that they can pretty much dispatch to us when we need them. For now, though, James and I have it under control. But we believe that in a few weeks, as word keeps getting around, that we’ll need more hands.”

Trish Deitch