Community is looking a lot different these days.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing is a necessary practice. Businesses are closing their doors, and all but those workers deemed essential are working from home. With so many people isolated and facing physical, mental and financial strain, “community” feels like an idea of the past. One organization, however, has been using Facebook to connect with its members and offer help in these unusual times.
The Mutual Aid Southeast Ohio Facebook group was created on March 12, just days after Governor Mike DeWine declared a state of emergency in Ohio, with the goal of connecting community members despite distancing. Through the group, people are able to ask and answer coronavirus-related questions as well as give and receive specific aid, such as groceries or protective masks.
Group administrator IIya Kogan said the group is loosely organized at the moment, but many members including himself are working to initiate some specific relief efforts. Although the Facebook group has been great for connecting people with one another, he said there needs to be a way to get involved that doesn’t require Facebook.
“The things I’ve seen on Facebook have been really, really positive. People are getting help from that. I’ve seen food being exchanged, ideas, at least one situation of child care, but that’s limited to people who can get on Facebook. I think there are a lot of people who aren’t being served by that.”Ilya Kogan, group administrator
One of the ways they are trying to reach more people is through a Google survey form. By filling out the survey, anyone can request aid or offer services. Categories include translation and interpreting services, transportation and grocery assistance, social connecting, emergency housing and more. Group administrators then work to match people in need to someone offering the right services. There is also a public spreadsheet where anyone can list their information for others to contact them directly. Kogan says they have received over 150 responses.
“One of the biggest needs we see so far is transportation,” Kogan said. “Things like picking up groceries for immunocompromised or elderly people, things like that. And then delivery for organizations [that provide food to the community, such as Thursday Supper at United Campus Ministry].”
Kogan said the Facebook group is also serving as a way to exchange information. By posting in the group, people are able to ask questions about local services, state orders and preventative practices, often receiving multiple answers within a few hours.
Others are focusing their efforts on specific areas. Nancy Schell, for example, helps make masks to distribute in the community. Schell, a former Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine employee and community health worker, posted an article about the lack of protective gear available in hospitals. She was concerned for her daughter, who is a nurse, and wanted others to realize what a lack of masks could mean for the spread of the virus. She ended up igniting an interest in sewing home-made masks.
Soon, Schell got in touch with the Athens County Health Department as well as community organizations such as Passion Works and began to coordinate mask-making. Fabric was sourced from a quilting store in Nelsonville, and a separate Facebook page was even created to keep track of volunteers and requests. Masks go to healthcare workers and office employees as well as circulate within family and friend groups. She says they have received around 1,200 requests for masks so far.
“We’ve all just been working together to make masks and get them out to the critical need places,” Schell said. “For me, it just kind of mushroomed off of that post and thinking about my daughter and networking with people I know in the community who can expand the project. It was already kind of organically happening.”
Kogan said he has seen the Athens student population get involved as well. Many students who live off-campus, for example, need help with rent and utility payments at this time. As a member of Athens Revolutionary Socialists, Kogan and others have been advocating for rent freezes during the pandemic as well as stricter regulations on landlords going forward.
Students have also been offering aid, Kogan said, and he would love to see more students, if able, use their resources to help the community. He encourages them to post and read in the Facebook group and fill out the spreadsheet. They can also join the Slack channel for a more direct response.
Jade Braden, a junior student who has remained in Athens over the quarantine period, said she sees the group as a positive force in the region.
“I think they’re re-putting an emphasis on community, and that’s great,” Braden said. “Personally, I would love to join in a capacity where I can reach out to people who are feeling isolated right now and provide some social connection.”
Schell, for her part, has been glad to see the community come together during an uncertain time. Despite some disagreements among the 1,512 Facebook group members, the collaboration and aid distributed throughout the community has given her a sense of hope.
“This whole pandemic just proves how we are all connected in every way,” Schell said. “Even though we don’t like to think we are because we are a nation of individualism. My hope for this whole thing is that we start to realize what is really important. It’s about us taking care of each other.”