As night fell on an empty downtown Minneapolis office building, Sammi Martín stepped into a conference room, opened her laptop and logged onto a video chat service.

On the other end was Merry Trapp, who lives at Edenbrook, a nursing home in Wisconsin. All visitors there are barred because of the pandemic. Elderly residents who are most at risk are now the most alone.

“It leaves a hole in your heart,” Trapp said.

“That’s hard,” Martín said, nodding her head. “I’m really glad we can talk.”

The 18-year-old Martín and the 81-year-old Trapp had never met.

But the COVID-19 public health crisis has many Minnesotans rushing to do things they never expected to.

As the dangerous virus spreads, so too does a sudden, improvised and extraordinary outpouring of charity across Minnesota — a rising wave of kindness to neighbors or complete strangers, thousands feeling galvanized to help those in need in what has become the worst of times.

University of Minnesota medical students have signed up by the hundreds to babysit the children of front-line health care workers.

Twin Cities residents are turning their curbside libraries into food shelves.

In St. Cloud, “preppers” — people who stay prepared for emergencies — are organizing to get donations of food, hygiene items and infant care supplies to those who need them.

And a Minneapolis man created an online chat service for the shut-in elderly that Martín and 80 other volunteers have already signed up for.

“It pulls at my heartstrings,” said Erika Camplin, a Vadnais Heights resident who signed up to deliver groceries to senior citizens.

“The only way we’re going to get through this difficult time is if we all just help one person. Everyone needs to do one good thing for someone else.”

‘The nicest thing’

For Chad Babcock, that one good thing was helping a local restaurant. Babcock, an insurance agent in Excelsior, bought $500 worth of gift cards from his favorite local restaurant, the Suburban, and is handing them out $10 at a time.

“Oh, my God, it was just the nicest thing anybody has ever done,” said Kelsey Quarberg, the Suburban’s owner. “Nobody in the restaurant business has any savings. We operate on a 1% profit margin.”

Babcock, who has served on the board of the local Chamber of Commerce, said restaurants are valuable members of the community.

“These businesses have always given to the community and helped everyone out, and now they need our help,” he said.

In the Hamline Midway neighborhood of St. Paul, Diana Neidecker pulled the books from her Little Free Library and restocked the wooden cabinet with oatmeal, dog treats and toilet paper. She put a new sign on the box dubbing it the Little Free Pantry, urging people to “take what you need and share what you can.”

Now she’s heard that the idea is spreading.

“Everybody has a Little Free Library in their neighborhood that they could throw in a couple of cans of food or a roll of toilet paper,” she said.

Camplin, meanwhile, saw a Facebook post asking for help meeting the needs of seniors and signed up.

“You can imagine these people just fading away into the background, not getting the things they need,” she said, adding that she regrets that it took such a crisis to spur her volunteerism.

“Something about the situation made me spring into action, but I wish I had been aware and jumped a little bit earlier, that it didn’t take this to make me a good person,” she said.

“My goal is to keep going. I don’t want to jump in and be a fair-weather volunteer. I really intend to go beyond this crisis.”

Preppers jump in

U medical students Sruthi Shankar and Sara Lederman have recruited more than 230 students in the health professions for MN CovidSitters, offering child care and other needed services to front-line medical workers.

In just a few days, Shankar said, the organization has set up a website and is developing a smartphone app.

Shankar said the health care providers being helped by the students are mentors, role models, faculty and alumni of the U. They are basically people in the roles the students will soon fill themselves.

“We see ourselves reflected in the people we’re helping,” Shankar said. “People want to help. We’re really not doing anything dramatic or radical.”

Will Laakkonen is a member the St. Cloud Prepper Pals, a grassroots organization that's taking donations of essential foods, hygiene items and infant care supplies and making them available to people who don't have the money or are unable to leave their homes to buy supplies themselves.

In just a few days, the group's Facebook page has grown to more than 1,700 members.

Response was ‘humbling’

Ian Aizman didn’t like what he was hearing from his young friends.

“A lot of times people would say things like, ‘It’s really bad if you’re old, but we’ll be fine,’ ” the 30-year-old Minneapolis landscaper said. Older people, especially nursing home residents, “are being cut off from their lifelines in terms of family and friends being able to visit them.”

He posted on Nextdoor, a social media site, asking for volunteers to do video chats with nursing home residents.

“The response was humbling,” Aizman recalled. “Every two minutes, it was, ‘I’m in.’ ”

A friend referred him to Aryeh Polstein, chief marketing officer of Eden Senior Care, which owns four senior homes in Minnesota and 11 in Wisconsin. Polstein immediately agreed to help set up video chats with Eden residents, who were cut off from visitors under strict orders from federal health care officials.

“When Ian reached out to me, I was like, ‘This is exactly what I want to be doing right now,’ ” Polstein said. “It’s such a unique situation. We’re all in this together.”

On Thursday, Martín and Trapp had the first chat — and Aizman has 80 more volunteers lined up. He’s calling it Virtual Visit Friend, and he hopes to continue after the crisis passes.

Though the pandemic is still in its early stages, many people are already thinking ahead to when it’s over, and hoping that a greater sense of community is part of the new normal.

Korla Masters is the associate pastor for outreach and stewardship at Shepherd of the Lake Lutheran Church in Prior Lake. She hesitates to use “silver lining” language, she said: “Thousands of people are going to die. There’s no positive spin to that.

“But my hope is that as we emerge from this, the responses that happened during the most critical part of the crisis will keep us grounded in our values and in our commitments to one another as a society more broadly.

“I think we’re being reminded of the deep necessity of relationships in this moment,” Masters added. “I hope we are able to hang onto that as we emerge into the new reality.”