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When the novel coronavirus crisis hit, Jennifer Pastiloff’s entire livelihood, like that of so many others, suddenly was upended.
As an author, international speaker, workshop and retreat leader, all her events were canceled until the summer and possibly beyond. Based in Los Angeles, Pastiloff has a social media following of about 70,000 people, especially on Instagram, and a key reason for her connection to them is her unabashed candor about what is going on in her own life. One of the things Pastiloff says she does when she is stressed and worried is immediately ask herself, “How may I serve?” As she tells The Hollywood Reporter, “It stops me from spinning out. I’m focused on what I can do, how I can be part of reaching out and helping someone else. It gets me present.”
On March 19, Pastiloff had an epiphany. She posted a meme on her Instagram profile (@jenpastiloff) to her followers that said, “Do you have enough food to eat?” Her post went on: “This is a literal question. I do not want to see anyone go hungry. Please leave a comment (no room for Shame here) if you are struggling to eat and we will come together as a community.”
The response was overwhelming. One of Pastiloff’s followers, Dayna Mondello, an educator and nanny, saw the post and reading down, saw a comment from a single mom who said she was running low on groceries for her three kids. Mondello reached out directly to the woman on Instagram. By that afternoon, she had purchased $300 worth of supplies delivered by Instacart for the family, who live in Florida. “It opened up something in me. I needed it,” says Mondello. “I needed to feel humanity and that feeling of connection. I was in need recently and people were there for me and I wanted to pay it forward. I knew I had to do more. So the next day, I DM’d Jen.”
They hadn’t previously met: Pastiloff had never noticed Mondello on her profile before and usually doesn’t open DMs from people she doesn’t know, but for some reason, she was drawn to that one. Within the hour, the two had connected and Modello began organizing a GoFundMe account called OnBeingHuman2020 — the name comes from the title of Pastiloff’s 2019 memoir — and a website (OnBeingHuman2020.com) to let users send money for direct giving for groceries, just as she’d done the day before. She put together a team of her friends as volunteers, with Pastiloff as the “rainmaker,” as Mondello puts it, figuring out ways to get the word out and raise more money to help more people.
Oh, Willow. You are an angel. @pink thank you for sharing this story with us. Please help us feed hungry folks at link in my bio or OnBeingHuman2020.com. I’m posting one minute clips because they are easier to repost. #onbeinghuman #onbeinghuman2020
A post shared by Jen Pastiloff (@jenpastiloff) on
On March 22, using IG Live and Facebook Live, Pastiloff held a 90-minute version of her On Being Human workshop, which she teaches all over the world. Some 1,000-plus people showed up, raising $12,000.
Pastiloff started thinking about how they could keep raising money. So she decided she’d continue using IG Live for conversations with some of her friends, during which they talk about what is going on with them during this time, and how they and their families are handling it, while also encouraging people watching to donate even $1 to $5 and share with others about it.
These friends who joined in include literary luminaries such as Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, actors like Michaela Watkins (The Way Back, Casual), IG influencers including yoga gurus Rachel Brathen (@yogagirl) and Kathryn Budig (@kathrynbudig) and music star Pink, who revealed April 3 that she had recovered after testing positive for the novel coronavirus.
Speaking with Pastiloff, the singer talked about her experience fighting the virus with her 3-year-old son, Jameson, how scary it had been (“We have been really, really sick”) and said they were finally testing negative after three weeks, though her son still had a fever. Said Pink, “It’s been a crazy time for the whole world. I think we’ve never been more connected as people…this is the first thing in our lifetime that doesn’t escape any of us.” She added, “So we’re doing this live chat. We’re getting groceries for people who are out of jobs that can’t buy food for their kids.”
OnBeingHuman2020 buys $100 grocery cards for people in need who apply on the website. Volunteers screen and call the individuals and buy the grocery cards online for the grocery store nearest those in need. “Direct giving” means instead of going into a charity, the money donated goes directly to the people in need. No one gets paid a fee or salary and there is no tax deduction for anyone to take. It’s pure giving.
Before long, some of those initial friends referred their friends and Pastiloff was soon interviewing more and more people on IG Live. Among those who have taken part in this direct-giving initiative are TV showrunners (Grey’s Anatomy’s Krista Vernoff); execs (Goop’s Elise Loehnen, Comedy Central’s Tara Schuster, former OWN co-president Sheri Salata); talent (Maria Bello, The Walking Dead’s Eleanor Matsuura, Paulina Porizkova, SNL’s Melissa Villaseñor, Laura Benanti); recording artists (Inara George); and personal development writers and gurus (Andrea Bendewald, Emily McDowell, Nadia Bolz-Weber). Booked to participate soon are The Affair showrunner Sarah Treem, actor-director Mark Duplass and Minnie Driver.
Four Grey’s Anatomy stars have participated: Debbie Allen, Chris Carmack, Kelly McCreary and Kevin McKidd, with the latter volunteering to join the team that calls the recipients of the donated grocery cards. Series’ showrunner Vernoff has taken part twice, having a chat with Pastiloff and holding a screenwriting Q&A.
Says Vernoff, “In my first conversation with Jen, she told me about a woman who contacted her who is the mother of a 3-year-old. This mother was letting the 3-year-old sleep all day because when he woke up he was too hungry and she did not have enough food for him. This story was so visceral and so painful, I knew in that moment that I had to do everything I could in terms of donations of money, time and connections to help Jen raise funds. At a time in the world where I don’t even feel like I can trust charitable organizations blindly, I trust Jennifer Pastiloff to put that money where it’s needed. It’s been a joy to help and also to chat with her on Instagram, which is new to me! I just feel like everything we can do, we have to do right now. And Jen has created an avenue where helping is fun.”
We hit 50k!! Thank you everyone! Please keep donating so we can feed more people. We are sending out $100 grocery gift cards (or grocery delivery if you’re unable to get out.) Currently @gofundme is holding the money but we are getting a loan from an angel to start sending grocery cards out to people until they release it. Donate if you’re able. Ask if you need help. Link in bio or at OnBeingHuman2020.com. You can ask for help on that same website! You have to go through the site or email OnBeingHuman2020@gmail.com. Tune into my live Instagram chats to see my special guests to raise money! Are you in? Comment I GOT YOU below if you are!! #onbeinghuman2020 #onbeinghuman.
A post shared by Jen Pastiloff (@jenpastiloff) on
Many of Pastiloff’s guests, such as Vernoff, are providing matching funds. After two weeks, the organizers raised their goal from $25,000 to $50,000. After meeting that, the goal is now $250,000.
Bello says that she got involved because, “Mr. Rogers’ mother said, ‘Look for the helpers.’ That’s how I connected with Jen when COVID-19 struck. She is the ultimate helper. She saw a need and just jumped in to do what needed to be done — in this case feeding people. I know every penny she raises will go into the hands of those who need it.”
Pastiloff started direct giving before the pandemic hit. Two years ago, she met Simone Gordon (@theblackfairygodmotherofficial), a single mom with a special needs child who uses this method to help people in need. For instance, Pastiloff would put a call out for her followers to send money through Venmo or Paypal to help pay an electric bill for a family in need. Or she would send her followers to Gordon’s “emergency wishlists” on Amazon or Target.com, so donors could go buy directly from the list to send things like diapers and school supplies.
“I acted on the whole idea, ‘I got you,’ which is my first tattoo I recently got, when I was feeling overwhelmed and anxious, as most of us are right now,” says Pastiloff. “Because I’d had experience with direct giving before, I had faith when I posted that meme that some direct giving would happen. And it did. People are really supportive. Everything flashed into motion. We all said yes. Dayna said yes. I said yes. We now have a whole team saying yes. And well-known people in entertainment are saying yes to the goal of helping people in small ways get through this crazy time. It’s amazing and so moving.”
Continues Pastiloff, “Even if someone can’t donate, they can come hang out with us and ask questions and maybe walk away with some inspiration and interesting insights which we also need during this time.”
Adds Mondello, “Last weekend, we heard Leonardo DiCaprio raised like $12 million in five minutes, and at first we were like, ‘Wow, what are we doing?’ But then we realized that we’re a different deal — we’re a homegrown, grassroots movement. We’re also collecting and sharing stories and the money is going straight into people’s hands. And all of us involved are growing and getting so much out of this endeavor. The epiphany for me is the inexplicable link between giving and receiving — to give really is to receive — there’s just so much power and healing in it. Now that knowledge is in my bones.”
Writer Elise Ballard is the author of the book Epiphany: True Stories of Sudden Insight to Inspire, Encourage and Transform (Random House/ Crown Publishing).
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