Health

What It's Like to Be a Mutual Aid Volunteer

VICE spoke to a volunteer who is helping her community full-time about the PPE shortages, her long walks, and having no time for self-care.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
May 4, 2020, 5:06pm
grocery shopping produce cart
Photo by Getty Images

As governments across the country fumble their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, mutual aid work has become a lifeline for Americans in need, as well as institutions like hospitals and homeless shelters.

Bonnie Blue Edwards, 31, is one of the people stepping up to volunteer with her local mutual aid group. Edwards, a filmmaker who has lived in her Brooklyn neighborhood for a decade now, teamed up with two local laundromats (H.M.S. Cleaners and Merritt Cleaners) to make and distribute fabric masks for healthcare workers. Soon after, she was contacted by her neighborhood’s mutual aid group—Crown Heights Mutual Aid—and began working with its more than 1,500 volunteers. She has continued to coordinate the production and distribution of fabric masks, and has also assumed responsibility for dispensing other supplies, like groceries, to her community.

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While continuing to work with Crown Heights Mutual Aid, Edwards has also reached out to Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s office and Bloomberg Philanthropies to see if they’d be interested in adopting the model she constructed in her personal initiative. “If there were 100 more dry cleaners working like [H.M.S. and Merritt], that would be about 100,000 fabric masks manufactured per month. Plus, with financial support from government or philanthropy groups, this would also be aiding small businesses providing a crucial service during this pandemic,” she told VICE. She has yet to receive a response from either.

Edwards, who is currently furloughed from her position as a content producer, said she’s never been involved in organizing before. Right now, she’s not getting paid for her efforts; she and the people she’s working with to provide mutual aid are doing so on a purely volunteer basis. But just because she’s doing this for free doesn’t mean the work is any less stressful or demanding than a full-time job. Edwards recently walked VICE through a few days of her new normal.

Wednesday, April 22

I started the day out organizing what I had in stock in an Excel document tracking inventory from donations and from mask-makers. Some items are in a spare bedroom at my apartment, but most items we try to keep at a makeshift distribution center a few blocks away from my apartment.

I had a request from a high school student whose family of eight has one person in the family, the grandmother, with COVID-19. They hadn't been able to find any protective masks in their neighborhood and both parents were also without work—so, just in a bind and trying to protect themselves.

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Normally, I have a couple of volunteers through Crown Heights Mutual Aid who can help with these pickups and drop offs. But this one was a bit further—the young girl and her family live in Sunset Park. I touched base with a couple of nurses and determined that a supply of N95 masks, instead of going to hospitals, would be best served going to this family. I arranged to go to our distribution center to get those supplies. I also snagged some fabric masks and some sanitizing spray for cleansing the N95 masks for reuse.

I got the supplies for the young girl whose family is sick, met with a volunteer to exchange some fabric masks for a senior in need, and also got supplies for a shelter in Crown Heights. They had no fabric masks for their residents, just a limited amount for the staff, so I grabbed those in addition to some surgical masks, KN95s, and gloves.

After I returned to my apartment, I was able to coordinate with the young girl and put the supplies for her family (an N95 mask each, two fabric masks for the grandmother, and some cleaning supplies, some hand soap, hand sanitizers, and fabric sanitizers) in a bag in an Uber. And I threw in a journal, because when I was in high school I liked to journal.

I continued organizing items for the shelter and reviewed the needs for another shelter, with the goal being that all of the staff and residents of these shelters have face coverings of some kind.

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I also arranged to talk to two people who are starting up a mutual aid in Queens area who wanted to learn how I've been organizing here in Crown Heights. I jumped on a call to tell them exactly how I do everything and emailed them all the documents I use. Nothing's precious to me; they can download, they can replicate, they can ask me any questions.

I've also made a whole bunch of ‘best practices’ digital flyers for maintaining fabric masks, for making fabric masks, and for donating PPE. These best practices come directly from hospital contacts, nurses,to make sure we're all being safe in this process.

And then I ended the day with Excel document upkeep for the weeks ahead, because the number of requests in Crown Heights is still quite high.

Thursday, April 23

I started my day out looking over the Excel, reminding myself of what PPE I have incoming and what I might have outgoing. Then, I checked my messages: emails, Slack, Facebook, and my Google Voice texts—there are a multitude of ways folks can get in touch with me.

This past week, the requests felt like they quadrupled. It went from being mainly hospitals to pretty much all the shelters and nursing homes that are in Crown Heights having a dire need as well. [Sigh.]

The goal this week was to try to fully cover as many shelters as possible. I had four in mind, two of which some local mask makers pitched in to cover already, then two other shelters I want to have covered by the end of the week. So, today was organizing the supplies for one of the shelters and figuring out how to get into it.

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Although we've had a lot of requests for masks and pickups this week, it's been a little quiet with volunteers as far as them offering and jumping in to help. I've heard that this is true within a few different volunteer groups. I think people are really starting to need some space from volunteering, to deal with the personal repercussions of this pandemic.

Fortunately, I'm a generous walker, and went from my apartment to a shelter about two and a half miles from here to drop off fabric masks, gloves, and some surgical masks for the staff and the clients there.

A few days ago, I had someone reach out who was actually wanting to photograph things going on in Crown Heights, to support the community during this strange time. He followed with me for the various drop-offs that I did today.

Shabazz, the photographer, met me at the shelter. I threw in a couple of other drop-offs that I wanted to knock out along the way back to Crown Heights. So we met with someone who's part of the Flatbush Community Mutual Aid. I had reached out to him earlier today, and said, “Hey, I have some things to get to someone in East Flatbush. I think it's better if I just give to someone who's in that community a small supply of some fabric masks in case it comes up again.”

The volunteer was totally on board for doing that. He had a bicycle and biked up to meet me, and Shabazz was actually here and got to see a whole “mutual aid meets another mutual aid” transaction.

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From there, I went to a home for aged people to hand over two fabric masks to someone who had received a food donation from us before, an older woman who has a walker. Then, from there, I headed back to my apartment.

Now that I'm home, I'm back with my doggy. I will take a minute to drink some water and then I have a bunch of emails to respond to regarding PPE, of course.

I also received a text message today from one of my hospital contacts that some of the staff at the hospital are sick and they're running low on masks, so I'm gonna personally take masks to her. I think I only have two N95s, but she said that would be a huge help, even that. And I got a request today from a friend from down South, where I'm originally from. She just started working at a hospital in Queens and they are in need of 100 fabric masks. So, a lot of work ahead.

For the rest of the day, I'll plan out the details, crunch the numbers on the fabric masks and other supplies, and go from there. It's a never-ending job that I'm happy to be tackling to help people.

Thursday, April 24

Today started off kind of hectic, one reason being that Friday is a good day for a lot of the local mask makers to contribute their supply of masks toward the distribution. We’d scheduled about eight different movements of fabric masks in total.

But this morning, the facility contact at our distribution center said that she wasn't going to be there today. That completely rerouted everything to me. I also needed to get something from the distribution center: two N95 masks for the urgent request from my hospital contact.

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So it was a bit of a hustle to reroute everybody and see if I could have any volunteers help with pick up, because I needed to stay home myself to receive the makers who could bring their supplies to me. All while trying to coordinate somehow to get into the facility, despite it suddenly being closed… Folks were understanding, but I felt a little misleading since they were being told two different things from two different people.

They ultimately came to me and I received their masks—they dropped them in my lobby and I had little goodie bags for them of hand sanitizers made by my friend, and then this fabric sanitizing spray. All in all, fine.

I was able to rush over and get the two N95 masks in between these visits and then put [those supplies] in an Uber to get those to the nurse at the hospital in need. Again, Uber saved the day.

I also stopped by the dry cleaner I work with to get their supply of masks to organize over the weekend, and to say hello. They've become like family to me. We check on each other every day and I have tried to be super supportive, particularly when their landlord has been rude to them recently.

I sent the mother who runs the dry cleaners flowers over the weekend. The kindness that she's extending to the community should be extended to her, and it's unfortunate that she's receiving any negativity these days. It was nice to see her and her son for a brief moment while getting masks from her shop across the street.

Then, I came back to finalize all of these movements and jump on the phone with a contact I made through the mutual aid Facebook group with this organization called Sistas Van. They have a van that is allocated to picking up donation items and dropping them off, which obviously sounds perfect for me, considering that has been an issue over the past few days.

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They're even eager to help with urgent requests for hospitals, in addition to the shelters and the seniors and the families in need here. We're discussing a day per week where they use their van in the area to hopefully expedite a bunch of distro.

Between this conversation and the fact that things have been a little chaotic with our current distribution center, I wanted to talk with Adela [one of the founders of Crown Heights Mutual Aid], who is someone I've become friends with in our conversations and her lending support and initiating this partnership with the distribution center.

We wanted to talk to each other about how our experience had been this week. There definitely needs to be better communication about the work we’re both doing right now. In the end, everyone's getting what they need, it's just… trying to be more respectful of everyone's time, since we're all volunteering.

We also spent time talking about the emotional side of our experiences—how we're working super hard, and how, sometimes, when something goes wrong, it's a little bit of a breaking point. We both had roommates flee during this time, we both have extra expenses, and we're both not making [enough money to cover our expenses], so it was a nice conversation as humans and dealing with our personal stuff but still trying to stay strong and continue our work as members of the same mutual aid group.

And, just to flash forward: My weekends normally consist of getting caught up on very basic things that I severely neglect during the week.

My dishes are normally stacked really high, my shoes are strewn everywhere, my laundry… my laundry is dying to be done. In fact, all of my bedding, all of my sheets, my comforter and everything, it's been in a bag ready to put on my bed after sleeping with just a blanket for a couple of weeks now. Because I'm so busy facilitating requests and running around and answering phone calls and texts and emails and preparing for the inevitable urgent requests that will come up.

At the end of the day, when I'm exhausted from everything I'm doing, I'm just happy to be healthy and helping people and going to sleep in my bed, with my dog. The fact that it doesn't have sheets on it feels unimportant. BUT, my goal this weekend is to put the sheets back on my bed, in addition to pick up more fabric masks and plan for the week ahead.

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