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Cleveland Mutual Aid Volunteers Hope to Fill in Gaps in Pandemic Response

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NICK CASTELE
/
IDEASTREAM
Mutual aid volunteers hope to connect neighbors with things they need, like food and hygiene supplies.

For older people or those with health problems, simple errands like buying groceries may appear riskier now during the coronavirus pandemic. Others who have lost their jobs are suddenly living on much tighter budgets. A new volunteer-run website in Northeast Ohio aims to link people in need with others who can lend a hand.

Bill Riter has found a way to support his community from afar, using a website called the Cleveland Pandemic Response COVID-19 community hub.

Each day, he reviews a list of needs posted to the site, and he pairs them with people who have signed up to volunteer. The job could be buying groceries, picking up toiletries—anything that’s become more difficult during the pandemic.
 
Requests for help have come in from across Northeast Ohio—and recently, from Australia, too. A man in Canberra needed to get toilet paper to his mother-in-law in the Cleveland suburbs, Riter says.
 
“I thought it was absolutely unbelievable, and when I found out it was around the corner, I just kind of decided this one was for me and there was a way I could do it safely,” Riter says.
 
Riter grabbed an extra package of toilet paper and drove from his home in Mayfield Village to nearby Lyndhurst. He put on a mask and glove, rang the doorbell, dropped the toilet paper on 84-year-old Valerie Benson’s doorstep and backed away.
 
“And I opened the door, and there’s this gentleman backing off of the porch, with a mask on. And he said, ‘There’s toilet paper on your porch.’ And I looked down, and there’s a package of Charmin," Benson says.
 
Benson says it was hard to find toilet paper locally, and an online order would have taken weeks to show up. She says Riter’s help was wonderful and he seemed to enjoy it, too. “He was happy to try to help with the pandemic, and he wanted to. I had the feeling that he was glad to finally be able to do one thing,” Benson says.
 
Digital mutual aid efforts like this one have sprung up across the country after hurricanes and tornadoes—helping people do that one thing for their neighbors.
 
Now volunteers are applying this strategy to a very different crisis. Similar pandemic aid groups have gone to work in other Ohio cities like Columbus.
 
Mutual aid advocates say their groups can react more nimbly than can government or big nonprofits. Chrissy Stonebraker-Martinez is one of the organizers of the Cleveland group.
 
“We were the gap. We’re there to fill in the holes, and also to expose the cracks in the system as well, to expose where people are falling through those cracks,” Stonebraker-Martinez says.
 
Cleveland volunteers have fielded requests for food, cleaning supplies and hygiene products like soap and toilet paper, organizers say. Daniel Moussa helps oversee the pairings of volunteers and needs. He says hundreds of people have already participated.
 
“I know that we’ve coordinated resources for more than 100 requests, and some of those requests are even like entire communities or church groups, like trying to make sandwiches. And we have a base of nearly 200 volunteers or volunteer groups now," Moussa says.
 
But they can’t do everything, particularly when people ask for money. In those cases, organizers refer people to bigger groups like the United Way. The nonprofit reports an influx of 211 calls seeking help with food and housing.
 
Cleveland’s mutual aid organizers now want to expand their project from the website to the block club, deputizing people to look after needs on their own streets.
 
Jeanne Li is a part of that effort, called the street ambassador program. She says the group is drawing up guidelines to help ambassadors check in on their neighbors while keeping a safe distance.
 
 “To reduce contact, you can just leave a little flyer that says, ‘Hi, my name is Jeanne, I live on your street, this is my phone number,'" Li says.
 
Li says she’s looking for people who have experience with things like block parties, and that helping neighbors should be more than a one-way street.
 
“After someone applies to be a street ambassador, I talk to them and make sure before we get anything started, make sure you talk to your neighbors. We don’t want to be just providing services. We also want to be building relationships," Li says.
 
Relationships that organizers hope will outlast the pandemic.