By Stephanie Schorow
In the second week of March, just as the nation began to shut down to halt the spread of COVID-19, paper fliers appeared on Malden streets with a simple message: “We are connecting volunteers with people in need.”
This represented the start of Malden Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a grassroots movement centered on a Facebook and web page, that has brought together residents who need help with those who can offer a helping hand. It’s part of a statewide neighbors-helping-neighbors push, but the local effort began with Malden residents concerned about the coronavirus pandemic and the impact of quarantine and social isolation on neighbors.
“People in Malden stepped up and then connected with the other groups,” said Anna Geoffroy, one of the organizers. “It didn’t surprise me…I’ve seen this happen before. When things go sideways, we all have to pitch in.”
Since the Malden Neighbors Helping Neighbors Facebook page launched on March 14, Maldonians have helped to get food to the elderly, supply health workers with masks, and provided reassurance over the phone during a troubled time. At the web site, residents can fill out forms indicating the services or skills they can offer or describe the help they need.
“Through the collective efforts of the group, we have over 750 members, growing every day, and 220 volunteers who are actively helping people in the community deliver groceries and prescriptions, and pick up food from Bread of Life,” said organizer Akola Krishnan in a recent interview with Neighborhood View. “It’s been fantastic.”
After residents A.J, Kumar and Meera Krishnan – with Kit Bridges and James Meickle – started the ball rolling in March with fliers and the online platforms, other residents jumped in, including Zayda Ortiz, an experienced community organizer. She said the effort has brought Malden’s diverse residents together – from immigrants to natives, from long-time residents to newcomers, and from old to young.
Organizers reached out to Karen Colón Hayes, Malden Director of Human Services & Community Outreach, who began to connect volunteers with needed services. For example the Mystic Valley Elder Services reached out for help as they wanted to deliver 400 supplemental packages in addition to regular Meals on Wheels deliveries. More than 50 volunteers showed up to help. Said Ortiz, “We ran out of food before we ran out volunteers.”
While volunteers are tackling big projects like making and distributing masks, “the most valuable thing we can do is focus on narrow person-centered tasks,” Geoffroy said. Like matching an experienced volunteer with a disabled young adult living on a third-floor walk up. Or getting a mask to someone who is immune compromised and had to move. Or doing a wellness check on an elderly neighbor. “We are extremely lucky; we have a couple of clinical social workers in our volunteer pool,” Geoffroy said.
Volunteers are, of course, following safety protocols with facemasks and gloves and frequent hand washings.
The Facebook page has become “a space for connecting community members to support one another and share resources for people who live, work, pray, play and/or learn in Malden,” as the site says. The site also politely asks that users should “Kindly avoid posting health advice or general ‘coronavirus news’ unless absolutely necessary.
Postings may range from a request for a plumber recommendation or for volunteers for a phone bank for the elderly or a post that links to the Paycheck Protection Program, with a recommendation: “Don’t wait if you are small business.”
Hayes has been collecting surgical masks and gloves; the Chinese Culture Connection stepped up with a donation of 8,000 masks that will be sterilized and donated to hospitals. “The more we collaborate with our neighbors, the better we are going to be,” Hayes said.
Certain moments will define the coronavirus pandemic in Malden but one may stand out. Ortiz described a response to a call for volunteers for the Bread of Life food pantry. About nine people stepped up, and while more were needed Ortiz figured, “We will make it work.” Then “out of nowhere,” 15 bikers roared in. One had seen the request on Facebook and organized members of his motorcycle club. “They swooped in and started picking up food,” Ortiz said. “It filled my heart with so much optimism and joy.”
The group is now trying to onboard as many volunteers as possible. Needed are folks who can do grocery pick up and delivery and absorb some of that cost. Another effort focuses on getting a fiscal agent for processing digital payments, like Venmo, from those who want to donate or who are paying for services, Hayes said. There has been, as organizers put it, a lot of “building the plane while flying it.”
“We are trying to have as much ready for when things start getting worse,” said Geoffroy.
Akola Krishnan has been struck with how those in need may have difficulty asking for help. She describes a single mother with no job and no transportation, who needed to feed her children — they usually got a meal at school. Krishnan convinced her to accept a grocery delivery. “The grace and dignity with which these people conduct themselves is very moving,” she said.
In some cases, people just want reassurance they are not alone. Ortiz described how a woman called to ask for milk. After some discussion, she admitted she didn’t need milk as much as she wanted to hear a friendly voice. She decided she could walk to the corner store. “At the end, she said, ‘This has been so helpful. How can I help?’ ” Ortiz said.
While moved by all the volunteer work, organizers say that the pandemic has exposed flaws in the American economic structure. “We keep cutting and cutting social service. We don’t have the social safety net,” Ortiz said.
Yet the Neighbors Helping Neighbors response gives the organizers hope for a brighter future. Ortiz looks forward to the day she can meet Krishnan face to face, in the same room. “I’ll be so glad to see you,” she said.
To volunteer, request help or get updates, go to www.maldenneighbors.org.