Wednesday afternoon, Michael Iceland showed up in front of a stranger’s house in West Roxbury, put his shovel into the snow, and made someone’s day.
Inside the house was an older woman, and she was stuck, unable to get out of her door, worried she could not get to her mailbox to pay her bills.
Iceland, 36, a Jamaica Plain resident, cleared that path for her, made a new friend, and felt great about himself in the process.
It is a common story in the Snow Crew. The brainchild of Joseph Porcelli, the Snow Crew is an online tool to connect the elderly, the ill, and the disabled to people with willing backs.
Porcelli, 37, who now lives in Washington, D.C., was inspired to create the crew back in 2009 after he heard that Cory Booker, who was then mayor of Newark and is now a US senator, was personally shoveling out people who could not do it themselves.
But it was in 2011 that the idea really took off. That’s when the group started using SeeClickFix, an engine that lets residents report things like potholes and graffiti, allowing volunteers to easily pinpoint those who need assistance.
“What’s so nice about it is that it’s easy,” said David Warner, who has helped shovel out his Jamaica Plain neighbors. “When you make it easy for people to do the right thing, things get done.”
But the Snow Crew, Porcelli quickly realized, was about more than snow.
“Originally, I thought I was addressing a problem, that people needed to be shoveled out,” he said. “It turns out that was a symptom of a larger problem of people not knowing each other and not being connected to their neighbors.”
That small gesture, helping a stranger, made them no longer strangers. From it, many have reported developing “extremely profound relationships on both sides of the equation,” said Dale Mitchell, executive director of Ethos, a nonprofit in West Roxbury that became a partner in the Snow Crew.
Ethos has a network of 600 volunteers dedicated to helping more than 2,000 elderly and disabled persons stay in their homes as long as possible, and Mitchell said that the simple daily gestures have proven to lead to close relationships.
“The long-term benefit of what we’re doing is that it’s reconnecting us with our elderly neighbors,” Mitchell said. “As we become more isolated in our own lives through technology and our own realities, we tend to be very atomized, and we don’t tend to think about the circumstances our neighbors are facing.”
Carolyn Madison had shoulder replacement surgery last winter, which left her unable to shovel and thus unable to get to a doctor appointment, and she said a weird anxiety set in. After discovering the Snow Crew, she entered her address online, and soon three young people were outside shoveling. “I was amazed,” she said.
This winter, she has had another surgery and has had to rely on the Snow Crew again as the first flakes fall. But she is feeling better and is looking forward to paying it forward. She cannot wait to go out and shovel for someone else.
Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.