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Cleveland Mutual Aid Volunteers Hope To Fill In Gaps In Pandemic Response

Mutual aid volunteers hope to connect neighbors with things they need, like food and hygiene supplies. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
Mutual aid volunteers hope to connect neighbors with things they need, like food and hygiene supplies.

Bill Riter has found a way to support his neighbors from afar, matching volunteers with people in need using a website called the Cleveland Pandemic Response COVID-19 community hub.

This new, volunteer-run website aims to react to the coronavirus pandemic more nimbly than government or big organizations might be able to, albeit at a smaller scale. The site allows people to deliver basic goods or run errands for those who find trips to the store more risky or unaffordable.

Riter goes online and reviews lists of needs posted to the site: for groceries, say, or for toiletries. Then he pairs that need with another website user who can pick up the goods and deliver them.  

Requests for assistance 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.

“I thought it was absolutely unbelievable,” Riter said, “and when I found out it was around the corner, I just kind of decided that this one was for me and there was a way I could do it safely.”

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,” Benson told ideastream. “And he said, ‘There’s toilet paper on your porch.’ And I looked down, and there’s a package of Charmin.”

It was hard to find toilet paper locally, and an online order would have taken weeks to arrive, Benson said. Riter’s help was wonderful, she said, and he seemed to enjoy it too.

“He was happy to try to help with the pandemic, and he wanted to,” Benson said. “I had the feeling that he was glad to finally be able to do one thing.”

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.

“We were the gap,” Chrissy Stonebraker-Martinez, one of the Cleveland organizers, told ideastream. “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.”

Cleveland volunteers have fielded requests for food, cleaning supplies and hygiene products like soap and toilet paper, organizers said. Hundreds of people have already participated.

“I know that we’ve coordinated resources for maybe about 100 requests, and some of those requests are even like entire communities or church groups, like trying to make sandwiches,” Daniel Moussa, who works to pair volunteers and needs on the website, told ideastream. “And we have a base of nearly 200 volunteers or volunteer groups now.”

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, which is reporting an influx of 2-1-1 calls seeking help with food and housing.

Cleveland’s mutual aid organizers now want to expand their project from the internet to the block club, deputizing people to look after needs on their own streets.

The group is drawing up guidelines to help “street ambassadors” check in on their neighbors while keeping a safe distance, according to Jeanne Li, one of the organizers.

“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 said.

People with experience putting on block parties or similar events might be good street ambassadors, too, Li said. Organizers hope to build a connection in neighborhoods that outlasts the pandemic.

“We don’t want to just be providing services,” Li said. “We also want to be building relationships.”

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.