Some of the requests are simple: Deliver a 6-year-old’s birthday cake from Whole Foods to a single mother who’s afraid to leave the house. Donate an old laptop to a student trying to connect to virtual classes.
Others are profound: College students from Nigeria looking for somewhere, anywhere, to live after their dorms closed. Out-of-work cooks, fitness instructors, and musicians who can no longer afford to feed their children.
But for so-called mutual aid groups now springing up across Massachusetts, no ask is too small or too large. Collectively, leaders of this grass-roots movement believe, local residents already have much of the expertise and many of the resources their neighbors will need to survive the coronavirus pandemic.
To get the job done, the helpers are relying on free time, anxious energy, their trust in each other — and online spreadsheets.
“No one knows or has everything, but as a community we know a lot and we have a lot of resources,” said Anna Kaplan, a 25-year-old volunteer who helps lead the Mutual Aid Medford and Somerville group. “It’s actually been really amazing to watch people offer up so much, from donating $10 to a room in their house, all to people they don’t even know.”
Decentralized “mutual aid” networks, which can serve a single neighborhood or up to several adjacent municipalities, existed in some places before the current crisis. But with the economy crumbling, and the government’s response slow and haphazard, an unprecedented number of ordinary residents in Massachusetts and across the country are forming or joining such groups.
The way it works is simple: Those with needs enter their requests into a shared online spreadsheet, along with contact information. Those with resources, time, and skills can reach out directly to help, or list their offerings in a separate spreadsheet that anyone can peruse.
Meanwhile, designated “pod leaders” collect phone numbers of their immediate neighbors, stitching together a hyper-local network that can quickly share news and urgent requests by text message, and collate lists of other free resources and institutions offering help. The idea is to create a one-stop resource that any overwhelmed resident can contact for immediate help, or at least a friendly pointer in the right direction.
Already, mutual aid groups say they have helped Massachusetts residents direct thousands of dollars to their neighbors who have been laid off, with no bureaucracy. Other members have welcomed displaced college students into their homes as if they were family or started routinely running errands for elderly neighbors who may be more vulnerable to the virus and fear going out. The organizations can also satisfy intangible needs: comfort, community, stability, and hope.
Rabbi Margie Klein-Ronkin, a Boston resident who said she may have COVID-19 and is self-quarantining, praised the effort of a Jamaica Plain-Roxbury aid group.
“I have felt incredibly supported,” Klein-Ronkin said. “I was literally having an asthma attack and needed medication, and was told not to go to CVS for fear that I or my husband would give others the virus. [They] went and got us prescriptions that allowed me to breathe. ... Another person got us groceries.”
There are benefits for the “helpers,” too, who said that having a sense of purpose — or perhaps even duty — has dramatically improved their spirits in this dark hour. Many admitted the work has prompted them to meet neighbors for the first time (though perhaps not in person, thanks to social distancing).
“It’s given the organizers of this a lot of hope and a sense of stability, because it’s something we can work towards and it doesn’t feel like we’re alone,” said Geri Medina, 31, who helps lead Mutual Aid Jamaica Plain/Roxbury.
Finding your local mutual aid group is often as simple as searching Facebook or Google. If none yet exists, leaders of groups in and around Boston are creating templates and playbooks so others can start them up in their own communities.
Leaders of mutual aid groups don’t want the organizations to evolve into formal nonprofits, nor do they believe the groups are a sustainable or complete substitute for the sweeping government interventions that will likely be needed to reboot a shattered economy.
Instead, organizers simply want to provide a platform for neighbors to support one another directly. Keeping the groups strictly local should help limit possible abuses of trust, leaders said. And many publish a public record of donations and expenditures as a transparency measure.
“Every person deserves dignity and stability,” Kaplan said, “and no matter what reason they’re reaching out, we want to support them.”
To read through any neighborhood’s list of needs is to watch a global tragedy unfold in real time.
Some requests are slightly silly — like one from a person near Somerville who wrote, “got sourdough starter, if anyone has an extra Dutch oven, txt me."
Others spring from a longing for normalcy, like the elderly woman who lamented missing out on her traditional Saint Patrick’s Day dinner of corned beef. (A nearby family who happened to be cooking some corned beef was happy to leave a serving on her porch the next day. “It was such a Boston moment,” Kaplan laughed.)
Still others show an imaginative spirit, like the recently unemployed thespian offering virtual acting lessons.
But most are simply heart-wrenching.
The rows of mutual aid spreadsheets overflow with desperate pleas from the suddenly unemployed. They exude fresh, raw, panicky fear, both of financial ruin and of COVID-19 itself. They underline just how much human suffering the coronavirus is already inflicting, even on those not infected, and foretell more to come.
“My wife and I recently got out of family shelter with our 2-year-old and into our own place,” a Somerville-area man wrote, explaining that a recent job offer had been rescinded because of the virus. “I have no idea how we are going to eat/pay for basic necessities in the coming days, let alone pay any bills. We are already running out of everything."
Taken together, the requests reveal a depressingly threadbare safety net — a society populated by people who are hardworking, creative, and deeply caring but nonetheless live a paycheck away from disaster, and whose formal institutions are often incapable of responding quickly or effectively when disaster arrives.
The offers of assistance, meanwhile, betray a widespread and unfulfilled yearning for meaning, purpose, and connection (and substantially outnumber requests for help).
But every time the box marked “aid given?” is checked off, the mutual aid spreadsheets also reveal our humanity.
“I want this crisis to make all of us realize that we do collectively have a lot to offer each other, and that we live in a profoundly unequal country,” Kaplan said. “I’m hopeful efforts like ours will move the conversation to, ‘how can we do better for each other?’ ”