Gunjan Gilbert of Franklin has been helping Mainers make appointments for COVID-19 vaccines. Credit: Courtesy of Gunjan Gilbert

Last week, Gunjan Gilbert of Franklin helped 20 people get COVID-19 vaccine appointments. She’s not a health care worker or a pharmacy employee. She’s just someone who wants to help.

She’s one of many Mainers who are stepping up to help older Mainers who aren’t tech savvy get appointments to be vaccinated. She said she believes there’s a need for more people to help as well.

This week, she talked to a Fryeburg pastor about what she does.

“She saw a lot of seniors in that part of the state who hadn’t been vaccinated and needed help,” Gilbert, a chef who prepares Indian food and sells it at farmers markets through her business, Tandoor Downeast, said. “I was able to give her information. I’m glad people are helping. They’re seeing that need and stepping up to fulfill it.”

The people who are helping are assisting friends, family, neighbors — even strangers — make vaccine appointments. They’re not getting paid. They don’t want anything in return. They just want to help, and hopefully bring an end to the pandemic just a little bit earlier. Officials from the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention, including Nirav Shah, the director, appreciate their efforts.

“Mainers finding new and creative ways to help other Mainers has been a hallmark of the state’s response to the challenges posed by life with COVID-19,” Robert Long, communications director for the Maine CDC, said. “This is just one example of thousands, for which we are deeply grateful. Dr. Shah ends many of his briefings with, ‘Be kind and take care of each other,’ which is really just an affirmation of what so many Maine people already do.”

For Gilbert, her new volunteer work began earlier this winter when Maine opened up vaccinations for people age 70 and up and she saw the struggles that some of her elderly friends were having. Many seniors don’t have high speed internet, she said, or even access to computers or email.

For her friends, negotiating the website was overwhelming and they panicked.

“They froze,” she said. “You have to be quick. If you’re not quick enough, the appointment gets taken by somebody else.”

So she stepped in, and found two friends appointments at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. While doing that, she got a sense of the system, and how some could find it difficult to navigate.

But she could handle it.

“The younger generation, we don’t think twice. It comes to us as second nature,” Gilbert said. “I tell people, if you know somebody who is struggling, you can mention my name.”

Word has spread like wildfire. So far, she estimates she has helped between 60 and 80 people get appointments. They have hailed from Hancock County, the midcoast, Piscataquis County and beyond. A lot of them are older, and all of them just needed a hand. That’s something that she was glad to provide.

“It is very satisfying,” she said. “In this thing, we are all in it together. The sooner we can help each other, the better off we will be.”

When people come to Gilbert, she takes basic information from them so she can answer the questions she knows vaccine providers will ask on their websites. She finds out how far they are able to travel, and then, on the days that appointments are available, she gets to work.

After she makes the appointments, she burns the information they shared with her in her little firepit. But she keeps the good feeling she gets after helping them.

“People are grateful,” she said. “They hear horror stories of how they would have to wait for months because the sign up is so terrible. And then they cannot believe they got their shot. They were age eligible. They just didn’t think it was possible.”