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News » Cover Story

The Helpers

A roundup of local groups that want to be your neighbor.

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When I first heard Fred Rogers talk about looking for the helpers among us, I wasn't much older than he was when he first got that advice from his mother. At the time, I assumed "the helpers" were limited to people like doctors, police officers and firefighters. As I've gotten older, I've come to understand that while folks in law enforcement, medicine and disaster relief are shouldering a huge burden right now, the term isn't exclusive to those equipped with a badge or a medical degree.

Helpers are all around us. One of the few positive aspects of living through a crisis like an international pandemic, is how quickly they come to the fore.

As a relatively normal person trying to take care of a family amid the outbreak of COVID-19, most of my anxieties and frustrations arise from a lack of information. With so many different stories about the virus bouncing around, it's hard to know what to trust and what to ignore. As I spoke with other friends and relatives, it was clear that we were all feeling somewhat disenfranchised and discouraged. Inevitably our conversations turned to how our system has failed so many. Watching a duplicitous system preach welfare but practice exploitation while a group of celebrities tried to put a band-aid on things by getting together and singing "Imagine" left us all fairly pissed off without an outlet to channel that frustration.

Despite the fear, anxiety, pain and outrage that we are undergoing as the outbreak rages around the globe, community members have risen to the occasion. Using social media and crowdfunding methods, these groups are becoming precisely the kind of helpers we need right now.

They're offering resources, carefully vetted information and solace to others—all while helping law enforcement and medical practitioners do their jobs on the front lines. Groups like Salt Lake Valley COVID-19 Mutual Aid and Utah Coronavirus Community Resource and Support Group are just a couple of these newly formed community-action groups dedicated to helping everyday people navigate these uncertain times.

Shandra Benito - ELISE BUTTERFIELD
  • Elise Butterfield
  • Shandra Benito

Salt Lake Valley COVID-19 Mutual Aid
Utahns need assistance right now, and Salt Lake Valley COVID-19 Mutual Aid has mobilized to help the most vulnerable members of our community. Their focus, says a mission statement, is on "people who are chronically ill and/or immunocompromised, undocumented, disabled, elderly, houseless, BIPOC, queer and trans, sex workers." Their primary service is to help get these at-risk community members the groceries and medical supplies they need so they can be safe. To this end, volunteers purchase and deliver groceries, while creating an emergency supply reserve.

Shandra Benito, a social worker and executive director of Art Access, is one of the group's organizers. During a phone interview, she explains that though the group's primary objective is to get necessities to vulnerable members of the community, they also want to provide an avenue for people who want to help during the crisis. "Most people are feeling powerless," Benito says. "They want to contribute but it's all really scary. This way, people can do the shopping, make deliveries, or help fund the emergency cache." Times of crisis have a tendency to leave us wondering what we can do, and Mutual Aid offers several outlets. Volunteers who deliver groceries can relay to the group any other issues that their vulnerable neighbors might be facing.

Originally from Seattle, Benito moved to Salt Lake City three years ago when she took over as executive director for Art Access, a collective focused on giving people with disabilities and other marginalized persons a creative outlet. In addition to her role there, Benito works part-time at the Rape Recovery Center. Her Pacific Northwest ties were what gave her the idea to help organize a Mutual Aid here. "Seattle was one of the first places that was hit really hard," she says. "I saw a Mutual Aid group there spring up, so I asked if anyone here wanted to get involved. Within 12 hours, we had a group of 15 people who spent the whole weekend creating GoFundMe pages and Facebook groups." At the time of our interview, Mutual Aid had completed 162 requests out of the 270 received and had 108 volunteers making deliveries. "We only expect the numbers to grow," Benito says.

Scrolling through its feed, there are grocery store employees offering updates about restocked shelves, professionals offering suggestions on remote work and other community members shouting out pointers as to where elusive items—like baby formula, hand sanitizer, protective gloves and even pet food—can be found.

The group's moderators have managed to keep posts service-based, but they've also worked hard to vet the news that comes through the channel. "One of our organizers is a nurse and she's been doing a really great job," Benito points out. "She makes sure that the information is up-to-date and from people who know what they're talking about." Carefully vetted information is one of the many things that helps this group function efficiently—they've become well-versed at identifying community needs, strategizing and then organizing to see it all through.

Those seeking services can visit the group's Facebook page and sign up for aid by filling out a request form that outlines things like needs, location and contact information. The group then evaluates these requests and does what they can to serve them."This is about equity, justice and prioritizing—taking care of the community," Benito notes. "This crisis has heightened a lot of inequalities and shortcomings in our system and we hope this is a wake-up call to change how things are done." Benito and her co-organizers know what it's like to feel disenfranchised and powerless, but their efforts have created glimmers of hope for those who feel most alienated and marginalized by our system.

As the group continues to evolve, they'll continue to need the help and support of locals. The group page has links to volunteer applications for those who want to contribute more directly, and they're always accepting financial donations via Venmo or GoFundMe along with non-perishable items for the emergency cache. "We've already had 450 people sign up to be volunteers, which I think is so remarkable," Benito says. "People will step up and help each other out, and I really think that's what's going to get us through."

Christine Stenquist - RAY HOWZE/FILE
  • Ray Howze/FILE
  • Christine Stenquist

The Utah Coronavirus Community Resource and Support Group
While Mutual Aid continues to provide direct community action and volunteer services, the Utah Coronavirus Community Resource and Support Group exists as more of a social media refuge and information repository. As co-founder Christine Stenquist puts it: "We're here to help keep the morale up and the bullshit down."

Stenquist's background is in politics. She currently runs Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE), an organization that aims to raise awareness and education around medical cannabis. The group is a collaborative offshoot of Mutual Aid, and is designed to help field people's questions and provide information so Mutual Aid can hit the streets and help. "There is a lot of misunderstanding and we're trying to pull in a lot of people in medical circles," Stenquist says. "We're not spreading fear and we don't want to be manipulated in any direction."

The main benefit her group provides is a sounding board for those looking to be more informed about the rapidly evolving crisis. It likewise opens avenues for members to collaborate and problem solve. And It's a place for those who need a little bit of moral support for those times when the social distancing and quarantines start to erode morale.

A large struggle with operating an effort like this is organizing, which is one of Stenquist's priorities. "If a person comes searching for resources and aid, they can check out our popular-topics tag," she says. The group totaled around 3,300 members within the first week, and its numbers continue to grow. "We want to remain effective, and it's not a place for memes and cutting loose," Stenquist says. "It's like your corner pub where people can go and talk a little bit and comfort each other—without the liquor."

To help keep traffic organized and on topic, the group has a number of different moderators from backgrounds like the military, law enforcement and microbiology. "We're always looking for volunteer moderators and people who are helping other patients find resources," Stenquist says. These experts help keep things on-topic and constructive in order to maintain the group's true purpose—to inform and support.

A trip through the channel's feed reveals people sharing ways to sew DIY face masks, organizing video chats to talk through localized problems and even listing the best places to find crickets for a member's hungry snake. It's truly heartening to see the amount of kindness that's being expressed on the page, even when it comes to helping a beloved reptile chow down. "We really are trying to fill a different kind of void," Stenquist says. "It's like a community board where we post valuable information. Mutual Aid is the special ops team and we're here to support them."

Offering a space where members can sound off and gather information as a supplement to Mutual Aid fosters efficiency. Though Mutual Aid gets requests for information—and is populated by people who are very forthcoming with their willingness to help—having a separate group dedicated to mental well-being and information-gathering helps the more action-oriented entities to get their job done.

There's no shortage of disillusionment, however, with the way state and federal governments have been handling the outbreak.

"We're tired of leaders who are focused on their egos and protecting their image," Stenquist says. "It's frustrating to see the cognitive dissonance in our politics." Like Mutual Aid, the resource group has channeled this frustration into positive action to fuel community efforts throughout the Salt Lake area.

Regional Groups
With our Salt Lake Valley groups keeping the fires lit along the Wasatch Front, a few region-specific groups are committed to a similar vision. The Northern Utah Coronavirus Support Group and the Southern Utah Coronavirus Support and News have been organized to target the specific needs of these areas. They're a bit smaller, and members of their moderation team couldn't be reached for comment at press time, but they're doing their part to maintain a sense of community in Northern and Southern Utah. At times when we're so focused on our own communities, it becomes easy to forget the state is composed of several different pockets that have a different set of needs.

Examples from their regional pages convey the same sense of community support that we're seeing closer to our neck of the woods. For example, I spotted a post about a collaboration between the Southern Utah Quarantine Support and Dixie State University that relies on volunteers to provide free pickup and delivery of items like groceries, medicine and other supplies. Cities like St. George are known for their high levels of retirees, so organizations that can help them stay home and stay safe are in high demand down south.

The admins for the Northern Utah group have ties to KSL Newsradio, so it's more aligned toward offering up-to-date information about the state's efforts to contain the outbreak. It's peppered with stories about what people are doing to keep up their morale (laundry basket skee-ball, anyone?) while offering ideas for parents to keep their kids entertained and educated while schools remained closed.

Both of these groups have a nuanced understanding of the communities that they represent, and visiting their pages helps us stay informed on what's happening in areas outside the Wasatch Front. A lot of us have family across the state, and reaching out to the groups in those areas is a great way for us to stay connected while we're practicing social isolation.

Be Kind Out There
While it's still fairly early in Utah's COVID-19 story, the fact that groups like these were able to organize and mobilize so quickly is a stark reminder that the help we need is often found in our communities. A crisis like this presents a sharp contrast between the good people next door helping because it's the right thing to do, and the politicians who stall relief efforts because they're too focused on an election year to take meaningful action.

Personally, it's taken a bit of time to wrap my head around a global pandemic, supply shortages and a few earthquakes to boot, but I'm at a point where helping feels like the only logical thing to do. For those who are in the same boat but don't know how to start, any one of these groups can offer an alternative. Reach out to them via social media, but also don't forget to keep tabs on your immediate circle of neighbors. The best thing any of us can do, is to make sure those on our block, in our apartment complex or living next door are doing OK.

We don't really know how things will change or remain the same in our immediate future, but now is the time when we do what we can to genuinely embrace Fred Rogers' concept of being a helper. Social media has redefined what it means to be a neighborly—and we now have several different ways to reach out with our fingertips. Let's make sure we use them. I'm also hopeful that this crisis will help us remember how chaotic life can be even when a pandemic isn't bearing down on us. It's always been hard out there, and hopefully rising to the occasion right now is something that we continue to do once all of this has passed.

Look for the helpers, and, if at all possible, become one yourself.

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