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Six Months Into COVID-19 Crisis, Online Volunteer Group In Springfield Continues To Fill Need

Mike Smith
NPR Illinois 91.9 FM

On Tuesday nights Jennifer Moore and her children pile into their van and make a stop at a church doing a grocery give-away. They then drop the bags off to people who respond that they need food in the Springfield Families Helping Families group on Facebook.

Scott McFarland, Springfield District 186 board president and executive director of Illinois' Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service, started the group back in mid-March.

Now, six months into the public health and economic crisis, it boasts more than 14,000 members and is still a place where those with extra time or resources can offer assistance and those who are in need can ask for help.

Moore said the deliveries get her and her kids out of the house, and have the added benefit of being a lesson.

“When we had to go out and get things, there was somebody who was there to help us. And now that we can help somebody and it might not be a bunch, we're not rich, but we can definitely go and deliver this stuff,” she said.

Delivering boxes of food from the Boys and Girls Club or school meals is one of the more frequent requests, underscoring the struggle many are having with meeting their basic needs.

Claire Edgecomb is a retired office worker in Springfield and does drop-offs with her husband. He drives, and she navigates. She said people needing transportation to even access the assistance that organizations were offering was a “wake-up call” for her.

“If you're someone who's always had a car or transportation, it's easy to forget that not everybody does. And the buses don't cover going to get a specific thing a lot of times,” she said.

But their first trip wasn’t successful. Edgecomb joined a line of hundreds of people picking up food at a Central Illinois Food Bank give-away in June at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.

The food bank ran out before Edgecomb was able to get a box for a woman who requested one on the Facebook group. She said she felt terrible. But she was able to do another food delivery a few weeks later for the same person.

She said volunteering has given them the opportunity to help in a safe way and stay connected to the community while being mostly at home.

Requesting And Offering

Moore, the volunteer and mom, said she originally joined Springfield Families Helping Families to make a request. In the spring, she’d just had surgery and had been having financial trouble. And at that moment, she was running low on shampoo.

“I read some of the posts and seen how quickly people responded. And then that kind of took some of the nervousness away seeing how helpful people really were,” she said, so she posted and asked for help.

Moore said a group member who lived nearby put together a whole care package – with shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, kids soap and more. They coordinated a contactless pickup from the neighbor’s porch. The group encourages members to follow COVID-19 health guidelines.

Moore was grateful, and when her health and financial situation improved over the summer, she started offering to help.

Katharine P. Eastvold, a volunteer administrator for the group, said what surprised her about the group was how many people were like Moore – posting to both request and offer.

“We don't have these big, broad categories of these are the people who give, and these are the people who need things,” she said. “I think I was unprepared for just the extent to which that's true.”

Group members offer hand-me-down clothes, toys and household items. Some ask about information on COVID-19 testing or rent and utility assistance. As the seasons change, so do requests – from Easter Baskets last spring, to extra fans or air conditioners this summer. 

Eastvold and the other administrators keep busy responding to dozens of posts per day – making sure requests follow Facebook’s rules and organizing posts into categories such as basic needs and information.

She said another big task is ensuring the group is a welcoming place to give and receive.

“We have an absolute no tolerance policy for any bullying that we see, for any rudeness that we see,” Eastvold said.

If a rude comment or prying question appears, the administrators delete them and can temporarily mute commenters or even kick them out of the group. Eastvold said it’s essential to keep the discourse civil because it can take a lot of courage to ask for help. Requests are taken at face value.

Mutual Aid

This part gives John Kelker pause. He is the president of the United Way of Central Illinois, which provides funding and support for social service agencies and offers an information hotline.

“I think they're reaching populations that we didn't reach before,” he said. But he’d want to make sure assistance is in the right place and maybe track who the group is helping.

“It is a fine line to walk and I'm not being critical by any means,” Kelker said. “But I would ask anyone who's offering help to make sure their help is in the right place and their heart is working along with their head to make sure their volunteer services and the gifts that they're giving are meeting their own expectations.”

McFarland, the group founder, said he sees the group as complementary to traditional service agencies, and often administrators will point other group members to available programs or resources from local nonprofits.

“We have a lot of amazing nonprofit organizations. But many people can't access those or they may not need the full support of an organization that would be more long-term. They just need that one little support mechanism for a day or two,” he said, and that’s what the group is there for.

He said it’s a mutual aid organization - neighbors pulling together to help each other out.

Eastvold gives a recent example of a mom asking the group for a folding chair for her child to use while remote learning. Looking around her office, Eastvold saw she had one and offered it up.

“You don't necessarily need a grant or a nonprofit that's dedicated to providing that in order to get to people,” she said. “You have to have neighbors who are generous, who have a little stuff and a little time on their hands.”

There are lots of examples like this. Edgecomb, the retired volunteer, said she delivered food recently to a man who lived in a motel and only had a microwave. He asked for a hotplate. Edgecomb posted to Facebook and a friend who was cleaning out their parents’ house had one that worked. She delivered it the next week.

Eastvold said during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s inspiring to see the radical reliance on neighbors.

“The more that we can take the pressure off of particular individuals to address this crisis and instead take this on as a community, I think that's a win for Springfield," she said.

Mary Hansen is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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