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Mutual Aid Midlands offering help, making community connections during COVID-19 crisis

Mutual Aid graphic

We could all use a little help every once in a while.

It’s a fact that’s been exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis. In a time when scores of people have found themselves without work as the economy has ground to a halt, and many are concerned about the health and wellbeing of themselves and their loved ones, it can be difficult to know exactly where to turn for assistance.

Now, a group of volunteers in the Columbia area is working to make connections with those who need help with various issues amid COVID-19, and serve as a bridge to help in practical ways.

A host of residents from various backgrounds — public health education, the nonprofit sector, the arts community and beyond — have formed Mutual Aid Midlands to help in ways large and small during the pandemic. The group has set up a hotline — in both English and Spanish — to hear the concerns of Midlands residents who are facing challenges at the moment. Among other actions, they’ve established a system to deliver groceries and medicine for neighbors, sewed masks for those who needed them, written letters to policy makers, and promoted local businesses that have been pushed to the brink as COVID-19 has gripped Columbia and the state.

There are mutual aid groups across the U.S., and they form and rally around various events and circumstances. Mutual Aid Midlands came together quickly as COVID-19 began to drastically affect the day-to-day reality in the Columbia area

Debbie Billings, an adjunct associate professor in the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health, is one of a number of organizers of Mutual Aid Midlands.

“There was a group of us that said, ‘OK, the pandemic, this is a crisis,’” Billings says. “We know that there are certain things that different organizations and state government and local government are going to work to address. But that takes time. And even when they work to address things, it’s not always reaching everyone that needs to be reached. … We have a belief that there is also power in community organizing and people not having to wait for something to happen. We all have resources and tools on-hand, and if we support one another, that’s going to take us somewhere.

“That’s going to take us far.”

The group’s “neighbors network” hotline — 888-927-6679 — allows citizens to call if they need assistance. Billings notes making the hotline bilingual was important to the Midlands group.

“It was absolutely critical,” Billings says. “There’s no way you can do anything in this country if it’s not, at least, in English and Spanish. Spanish is such a commonly spoken language, and we know that South Carolina has a significant Hispanic population. … And I will say, there are four of us who answer the hotline in Spanish, and really a bulk of the calls we have had have been Spanish speakers.”

Mutual Aid Midlands has engaged in a number of unique initiatives to help the community, including a gift card drive to help families in need of groceries, and an “E-drive” in which it is collecting wi-fi capable devices to enhance Internet access in the 29203 zip code. That largely African American area in North Columbia has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Mutual Aid also is collecting coloring books, puzzles and games for kids who are out of school during the coronavirus, and for adults with developmental delays.

The volunteer group also works to connect those in need with organizations or resources that can help. For instance, if someone who reaches out is not aware of where to get assistance with food, Mutual Aid can point them to an appropriate agency, like FoodShareSC or Harvest Hope.

Sonya Jones, an associate professor with USC’s School of Public Health, is another participant in Mutual Aid Midlands. She is hopeful that the effort will help create lasting relationships in the community, and foster a greater spirit of cooperation, with citizens using their specific skills to help one another across the socioeconomic landscape.

“Mutual Aid is trying to think differently about what kind of relationships we have with folks, and how we respond to one another,” Jones says. “One of the key principles that we all operate under is that we’re not entering into relationships for them to be short-term. … The idea is to have a relationship with community members that maybe we didn’t have an opportunity to connect with before, and that they have the potential to lead and offer mutual aid, as well as receive mutual aid.”

Those interested in volunteering with Mutual Aid Midlands can call the hotline or visit facebook.com/MutualAidColumbiaSC for more information.

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