For Carrie Saks and Justin Garfield, the first mother/son pair in Leadership Manhattan Beach, the coronavirus pandemic has hit a little too close to home.

Saks and Garfield are managing from afar the care of his grandparents who have contracted COVID-19 in Sun Valley, Idaho.

Keith Saks, 80, has nearly fully recovered. Karen Saks, 77, has been in a hospital in Twin Falls for 23 days.

Carrie explains her parents likely contracted the virus while Keith performed his duties as a Sun Valley city councilmember.

On March 6, Keith Saks presented the keys to the city to members of the Black Summit of National Brotherhood of Skiers. More than 700 people came from around the world to Sun Valley for their annual pilgrimage to the snowy mountain mecca. And, her dad shook hands that day, said Carrie. Even in the early days of the pandemic, he was careful and immediately washed his hands afterwards.

A week later, according to news reports, 126 members of the Brotherhood contracted COVID-19, including DJ Jazzy Jeff, who performed at the event. And some longtime members of the Brotherhood have recently died of the illness.

"My dad was just doing his civic duty," said Carrie. "That's how he got the virus."

Now, like so many pre-coronavirus endeavors, the class project for Leadership Manhattan Beach—to install hydration refilling stations throughout the city—lacks immediacy and relevance.

With beaches and the Strand closed, there are no pedestrians who need to fill water bottles on the go.

The hydration stations would have been the capstone for Leadership Manhattan Beach's 9-month training program. Last year's class donated automated external defibrillators to police vehicles. The year before, the class built concrete ping pong tables at area parks.

This year's leadership project was in its final phase. It was approved by Manhattan Beach City Council and had garnered a $4,000 grant from West Basin Municipal Water District.

But, when her 2020 classmates heard about Carrie's parents, suddenly the virus was personal.

“We already wanted to help the community, but now (the virus) was affecting people we knew," said classmate Carol Melville. "We wanted to convert that helpless feeling into positive energy.”

So the leadership class has put hydration on hold to instead focus on assisting local organizations with coronavirus relief efforts.

It's the first time a leadership class has had to shift focus at such a late point in the project, said longtime Leadership Manhattan Beach coordinator Katheleen Terry.

“They have shown what leadership is about in changing with the environment and helping our community,” Terry said.

Melville, for example, has completed a 30-hour training to join a crisis text line supporting people anxious or overwhelmed during peak hours of 7 p.m. to 3 

Other classmates are making phone calls to senior citizens and hand-crafting get well cards for Carrie’s parents and for first responders at local police and fire departments. And, still others are becoming members of the mask-making brigade.

  • Juliana Ibaraki, a Mira Costa junior, has completed more than 100 customized face masks.
  • Erene Lugo-Islas has worked with Kinecta Federal Credit Union to donate 160 masks to Shared Bread in Redondo Beach (serving people experiencing homelessness) and Always Best Care Senior Services.

Still others have found a variety of ways to help:

  • Garfield, Carrie Saks' son, has cooked for Food Not Bombs in the Salvation Army space in Santa Monica.
  • Dahlia Kaldawi has created mental health panic attack kits for teens dealing with self esteem issues.
  • Molly First is organizing a drive to include breakfast sandwiches in the dinner “to-go” meals that Shared Bread provides on Wednesday evenings.
  • Alec Hoag is working with small businesses to acquire Small Business Administration loans to help keep employees working.

As for Carrie Saks, it's an extremely emotional time. She's coping by compartmentalizing. Her public relations clients need help right now, so she's focusing on that while trying to not fret too much about her parents.

Her dad is at home, learning how to use the washer and dryer, she said. Her mom had been isolated in her hospital room unable to walk the halls.

"I think of my mom as someone who hikes up mountains, but she can't even stand up from a chair right now without needing oxygen," said Carrie, on Monday, just a day before her mother received news she was being released from the hospital.

Having both parents on the road to recovery feels lucky, said Carrie. But still, she worries.

"My parents are so far away. They've always been my rock and my safety net," said Carrie. "It's such a feeling of being so helpless. There's nothing I can do for (my mom)."

So for now, Carrie and her Leadership Manhattan Beach classmates throw themselves into philanthropy, knowing they'll get back to that hydration project one day.

"I really believe that how you do one thing is how you do everything," Carrie said.

Contact Lisa Jacobs or follow her on Twitter @lisaannjacobs.

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