Local mutual aid networks offer supports in time of isolation

  • Beef and Stout Stew.   Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post.

  • Flyers distributed in Easthampton. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 3/25/2020 1:29:16 PM

EASTHAMPTON — “Hi neighbor! My name is Sita,” reads a flyer that has been left outside some homes in Precinct 1 in Easthampton.

“I know that coronavirus is spreading in our area,” the flyer continues, “and I want to be connected with you and our other neighbors so we can stay in touch, have an emergency contact sheet, pool resources, and support each other.”

The flyer invites the recipient to join a neighborhood network and includes an email and phone number to contact.

City resident Sita Magnuson is one of a number of people who have been working to put flyers out in her area as part of a project that aims to connect neighbors to each other for support during the pandemic. Paradise Copies is printing the flyers to avoid contamination of home printing and Magnuson said they have worked out safety rules for distribution to ensure they don’t accidentally spread the virus.

“I know that there are cases of people who are already in need of support — running errands, picking up prescriptions,” Magnuson said. “Right now, the focus is getting the community infrastructure in place … We’re trying to make sure we get the network in place so that when needs arise, we can respond quickly.”

Magnuson’s group is one of many that has begun to form under the umbrella of the Western Massachusetts Community Mutual Aid network, a group that’s primarily organized on Slack, an instant messaging platform, to organize people in cities and towns across the Valley in helping each other during the COVID-19 pandemic.

About two weeks ago, Story Young and Liam Gude, both Williamsburg residents, started the network.

“We had been following the COVID-19 situation for a long time and I just wondered what we could do about it,” Young recalled.

The two decided to create a Slack workspace to organize, and several hundred people quickly joined.

“It really took off very rapidly,” Young said. Eight hundred and fifty people joined the Slack network as of Monday, according to Young.

The network aims to create “pods” in neighborhoods and find volunteer “neighborhood point people” to lead them.

Groups are forming all over the Valley, including in Easthampton, Northampton, Hadley, Greenfield, Holyoke and Springfield.

“The goal of the Slack is to organize organizers,” Young said.

“Slightly meta, I guess.” Gude added, “The goal, I think, of this is to see the different pods and different towns of volunteers be self-managed and self-organized so they are creating stronger community ties.”

‘Relationship building’

Mutual aid networks like this have cropped up all over the country in recent weeks, including one in Somerville and Medford — a group that Young referenced as an inspiration for the structure of the western Massachusetts project.

Many groups in the Western Massachusetts Community Mutual Aid network are working to gather information and connect with their neighbors like Magnuson is doing with flyers.

“This isn’t trying to just solve a need right now,” Young explained. “This is relationship building. This isn’t going away in two weeks. Even still, there are other reasons to build a community network and lots of needs could arise over the next six months or a year into the future.”

In Easthampton, Jen Sandler and other volunteers have been distributing flyers in Precinct 4, while wearing gloves, alerting neighbors about the formation of a neighborhood group under the Western Massachusetts Community Mutual Aid network.

As of midday Tuesday, Sandler had heard back from about 50 households in her precinct.

“I got a note from an 82-year-old guy who lives alone, saying I don’t know exactly how I can help but I really want to be helpful,” Sandler said.

She wants to help people connect to existing social services, including city resources and school meal programs. “We’re not trying to replicate services,” she said.

How Sandler’s neighborhood group will provide help isn’t yet clear, and for now, she’s focusing on canvassing.

“We don’t know exactly what needs will arise but we know they will,” she said. The needs will be felt “disproportionately on the part of people who are poor, and people who are living paycheck to paycheck, and people who may not get those paychecks … also disproportionately on elders in our community.”

She added, “The first step for us is making sure everybody knows they aren’t alone in this time … that they don’t have to be afraid of their neighbors.”

Other projects

More generally, the Western Massachusetts Community Mutual Aid network has created a system where people can ask for help, such as the dropoff of supplies and assistance getting groceries, and others can get in touch with them. On the network’s website, www.wmacma.com, people can fill out forms requesting or volunteering help. People have offered to run errands, give emotional support, provide short-term housing, or go on walks, among other help.

The network also includes specific projects taking on issues like child care and transportation. In Northampton, for example, a group is working to prepare meals and distribute them to people experiencing homelessness in the city.

The group has heard from homeless people in the city that some places they get food are closed, and without foot traffic downtown, they aren’t getting the money they might, said volunteer cook Blythe Newton-Haynes. Or, they don’t want to handle cash, since paper money typically carries a lot of germs, she added.

The group is also handing out water bottles. “One of the things we heard is that a lot of people are having a hard time getting water,” she said.

Newton-Haynes, a Northampton resident, has been cooking meals like vegetable and bean stew while wearing a face mask, and then someone else picks up the food to distribute it.

When she heard about the project, she said, “I was like, I definitely have a lot of food here. I might as well share it a little bit.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.

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