To aid those facing vulnerable circumstances during the pandemic, community members in the in the Reservoir Hill and Bolton Hill neighborhoods organized a team to provide services such as delivering groceries, walking dogs, and picking up prescriptions. Sam Gomes interviews Canay Özden-Schilling about her neighborhood’s self-quarantine response team.
Gomes: How was this response team formed? For example, did a preexisting neighborhood group or association organize this in response to COVID-19?
Özden-Schilling: Our neighborhoods, Bolton Hill and Reservoir Hill, have a great sense of community and existing structures of communication, in-person and virtual. The idea of forming a response team was first put forward by a neighbor on the neighborhood Facebook group, during the first week of the lockdown. Of course, during the initial days, there was much uncertainty and confusion as to how long the isolation would last and what its burden would be on our neighbors in more vulnerable circumstances. Our neighbor suggested a virtual meeting to exchange ideas on whether we could form a response team to match volunteers to neighbors in need as requests for assistance arose. I’m very grateful to her for taking that initiative. I should say that we borrowed this idea from other Baltimore neighborhoods which had in the previous days come up with their own structures. They had graciously shared their toolkit online—the Google forms to recruit volunteers and assistance seekers, a sample list of procedures… So five-six of us, all women, started off by creating a Google form, an email address to collectively monitor, and a hotline number. Then we flyered the neighborhood with this information. Within a week, we had more than one hundred people signed up as volunteers
What were the initial goals of this response team, and how did these aims evolve over time?
The idea was having neighbors in more vulnerable circumstances (the elderly, the immunocompromised, those exposed to COVID and have to quarantine stringently) be assisted by those neighbors who are able to get out and run errands. We thought most of the requests would entail doing small grocery runs and prescription pick-ups and that turned out to be true. The coordinators (right now six of us, all volunteers) didn’t have first-hand experience with public health, but we found ourselves in a place where we had to educate ourselves quickly to make sure we were doing this safely and contactless. For instance, we had originally listed dog-walking as a service, but then removed it after realizing, with the help of some of our neighbors, that there couldn’t be a contactless way of doing it. We listed basic remote technology help over the phone, for which we must have received a few requests. We also listed chatting on the phone for emotional support. Many people volunteered to provide it, but not many asked to receive it! Another need that came to being over time was masks. When we first started, masks were not recommended by the CDC, but a month into our practice, we got our first request for a mask, at a time when masks were scarce and sewing masks was not yet too common. So we also started a mask bank, somewhat later in the game.
Besides the services listed in the response team signup sheet (buying groceries, picking up prescriptions, dog walking), what other requests of service did you receive? Did any of these requests surprise you?
As we all know, the pandemic has exacerbated already-existing social inequalities in our city. It was expected but still sobering that we began to receive requests for donations and financial assistance. We weren’t and still aren’t structurally able to provide that assistance however gut-wrenching it is to have to decline such requests. But what we were able to do was to adopt a bit of a social work mindset and assist those who seek donations and financial assistance in finding the resources in the city that provide them. It became one of our tasks to gather city resources and their contact information, and directing requests to them accordingly. We now have a good list of food banks, places that help with computer access and applications to the state for aid, among other things. One lesson from this was that we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel; a lot can be achieved by connecting the dots between existing support systems.
Where did you and your team find limits to what you could provide your neighbors?
The coordinators are all volunteers juggling work and family. We had to frequently remind ourselves that we were all functioning at capacity and that we had to acknowledge our limits. After two months or so, the requests we received started to drop significantly, so we could continue the work rather easily. But at the beginning, when we didn’t know how long we would have to provide these services and we had to put in a structure of communication and data collection, it was quite a bit of work that people did in an admirable way. Now we are increasingly more in contact with citywide aid groups surrounding us and we consider how we can become part of a larger structure going forward.
How did you communicate with team members and neighbors to coordinate these services? Did you run into challenges with communicating between people (e.g. technology or language barriers)?
One could say that the whole experiment was one in using online technologies efficiently, as has become the refrain in so many aspects of our lives since the onset of the pandemic. We have weekly calls to communicate and check in with each other. We use shareable spreadsheets to keep all the volunteer and requester data in one place. One of our coordinators made a shareable map that mapped volunteers’ locations so we could easily match them to requesters living within blocks. As has been the case for so many of us, the online tools that we routinely used prior to the pandemic but perhaps didn’t use so efficiently became key things to use well at this time. We also quickly realized that we needed to protect the privacy of people volunteering their information. Even though ours is a tight knit community, we still have to manage this data very responsibly, so we would agonize over as small decisions as whether to cc or bcc a few neighbors in an email.
Our requests came in to us through email and Google Form, but of course, many who are in more vulnerable circumstances are also less likely to have access to the internet. Crucial to that particular issue was the hotline phone number one of the coordinators created, again using a free online service. She forwarded the number to her personal phone and has very graciously monitored it ever since. I should say, though, that perhaps the most effective technology has been paper. The flyers we delivered to people’s homes did more to publicize our team than anything else. Within a day or two of the flyers going up (again also done by neighborhood-wide volunteers), we’d see a significant hike in volunteer and requester information coming in.
Did you seek support from any institutions? If so, was it easy to find avenues of support from institutions?
It is humbling to see how many mutual aid institutions there are in Baltimore—pre-existing or forming as we speak—of religious, charitable, and social justice kinds. Our email address was quickly incorporated into these groups’ weekly call announcements and listservs. Because we are all volunteers, we have had a limited chance to keep abreast of everything out there. Some of us have been more available than others. But as of right now, as the city is opening up and the requests have declined precipitously, this is the work to do for us—to see how we can transition from being an ad hoc team to a standing part of these communities.
How did organizing these services and volunteering with this team change your understanding of your community?
I admit that volunteering is something one does for herself as much as for others. Especially in the first days of the lockdown, being a part of this team gave me much-needed focus as everything else around us was changing fast. And it gave me the much-needed reassurance that we have a wonderful, strong, ready-to-help community in our city. I think a lot of our neighbors found comfort in volunteering. It felt empowering at a time when the public institutions we should be placing our trust in were publicly failing us, as they still are. It is my hunch that we will not forget the feeling of this experience. Regardless of how familiar the volunteers might have been with volunteering before, I think they will retain this notion of mutual aid and carry it forward, in anticipation of moments in the future where public institutions fail us again in our time of need.
Do you think that neighborhood response teams are the best solutions to these kinds of crises? From your experience working with this team, what other kinds of services or improvements to this service would benefit your immunocompromised or otherwise vulnerable neighbors during a crisis like this?
As heartening as it is to see mutual aid groups come to formation, I will readily admit that they are no substitute for governmental forms of support. Even then, I think the continuation of these community groups is crucial, because we have the ability to identify areas of need more readily and we can work to keep public institutions accountable. For instance, I know that in contexts outside the US, there have been municipality programs doing deliveries to people in quarantine. Because no such measure was introduced here, we had to do it ourselves. The hope is that our community-driven measures eventually become provided by our taxpayer dollars.
What from this service and overall experience should continue once the COVID-19 pandemic ends?
Right now, as the requests have more or less ceased, we are in the midst of deciding our next steps. The very first thing we have decided is that we will continue our weekly calls and just stay on standby in case there is a new outbreak. I think that work in itself of continuing to monitor the lines (or to “woman” them, as we have come to call it) is important. From there, it might be possible to fold into larger mutual aid groups. I think, whatever happens, we are at a much better place than when we started.