I wasn’t intending to become a community leader when I offered home services to our elders through a post to our neighborhood Facebook group. My mother, who lived in the area for 40 years, had just died. But she had lived independently in her house, often with the help of neighbors, into her mid eighties. I wanted to give back and figured someone could benefit from the occasional lightbulb change or grocery store run.
What I didn’t anticipate was the response. A few people replied to my post that they could use help. But nearly 100 people in the 5,000-plus-member group expressed interest in lending a hand as well.
I knew I had triggered the beginning of something. I didn’t know exactly what it was, but it seemed the only next step was to hold a meeting and find out.
When I posed some meeting dates, nine people expressed interest in attending. This was fine. I can fit just a handful of people in my living room anyway. We met, made some plans for how to move forward and agreed to meet again in a couple of months (we were facing the holiday season). Just before our next gathering, the coronavirus and its deadly corresponding disease, COVID-19, halted life as we know it.
We never had a second in-person meeting. But a handful of those nine people who showed up for that first meeting instantly became invaluable leaders. We hopped on a group chat, divided up tasks, and launched a Facebook page and free Google phone number and email address for our services. We designed a flyer, recruited volunteers who helped us to print and distribute 2,000 of them, and began delivering groceries, medications, and even the elusive pack of toilet paper to our neighbors in need–all within four days.
We’re thirteen days into the pandemic as I write this article from my home in San Francisco. In this short time, we’ve learned how to quickly and efficiently mobilize and execute, amassed 100-plus volunteers, and delivered aid to dozens of households. We are getting more requests every day and, thanks to a little organization and planning, we’re ready for them.
If you’d like to start your own community help group, I’m sharing our learnings and best practices here. They’re relevant for our world’s immediate need, but they can also apply to any other type of community initiative. What you won’t read below is how people you’ve never met will rise up and join you with herculean effort, lend their expertise to improve your process in ways you couldn’t have imagined, and open your heart with the profound goodness of it all. You get to discover that for yourself. ❤️
How to Build a Community Help Group
- Create a Facebook Group about your service (see details below).
- Create a Google voice phone number/voicemail.
- Create an easy-to-read Google email address and set up an account to access emails (decide who should access/respond to emails and give them access).
- Create and print a flyer outlining your services and how to reach you. Include names and faces if possible (they lend a greater sense of trust and humanity; see flyer template below). Add language translations if you’re distributing to an area rich in multiple cultures.
- Create a “steering committee” to help make decisions, manage tasks, and lead and execute efforts as they come up; trust us, you’ll need help.
- Gather additional volunteers by reaching out to local Facebook, neighborhood, school, or other groups and ask them to join your Facebook page for central communications and to watch for and respond to requests for help posted on that page.
- Create a protocol. In the case of the pandemic and our immediate efforts, our protocol is for picking up and delivering items in a way that protects the wellbeing of everyone involved and resolving payment for any purchased items. (See sample protocol below.) Your protocol should address your group’s goals and efforts.
- Create a volunteer log to record who requested what and when and who resolved it. (Record the name, address, and phone number of the requester in order to best manage volunteer deliveries; we keep this document private among to protect privacy.)
- Share your process and protocol with your volunteers.
- Distribute your flyer to every household in your desired area.
- Post help requests that come in via email or phone to the Facebook group, logging the information in your volunteer log to keep track.
- Connect the person requesting help with the helper to arrange details.
- Let the Facebook group know when a task has been completed. (See sample post below.)
- Create standing Zoom or other virtual meetings with the steering committee to address concerns and changes to conditions or protocols.
- Hold optional, occasional volunteer Zoom or other virtual team-building meetings for all volunteers to share news and protocols and get to know each other. Make time for everyone to introduce themselves, offer comments and suggestions, and ask questions.
Creating a Flyer
Distributing a flyer is very important because it is a surefire way to reach older community members and others that may not be online. If you are looking for volunteers as well as people in need of services, say so. (You will likely get people offering to help anyway, but a specific call to action will garner more results.) Start from the following flyers to create your own.
Creating Your Facebook Page
- Choose a name for the page.
- Change the link name to match the name of the page/group.
- Upload a Facebook page cover and profile picture–a quick, DIY logo works great!
Remix Facebook cover templates!
- Decide if you want it public or private.
- Add questions new members must answer to keep out spam.
- Assign admins/moderators to help run the group and share the load.
- Create a welcome statement explaining the page’s purpose and how to use it. Make sure it’s promoted to the top of the page. E.g.:“Welcome to the CVC group, connecting in-need residents of San Francisco’s Cole Valley with local volunteers ready to help. If you are homebound or ill or simply need some help, post here and our community volunteers will respond and do our best to speedily oblige. Free services include grocery and medication pickup and delivery, pet walking, rides to medical appointments, and handy person tasks. If you are a volunteer and would like to help, respond to any request that comes available and work directly with the person on the logistics of completing the request. “
Sample Facebook Post
(The “RESOLVED” acknowledgement was added after the task was claimed by a volunteer.)
Your work is likely to uncover needs that are not related to COVID-19, such as food insecurity. You may also encounter exchanges that have mental health components or other needs that most of us aren’t trained to manage. In such cases, it’s helpful to connect the person in need with local and national organizations that are better suited to address such cases. If possible, gather a contact list of such resources so you have them on hand. Food Banks, churches, and other community service centers are often great leads to local and national resources.
Don’t worry if you don’t have everything figured out all at once. This is a learn-as-you-go effort and we’re all doing our best.
Mutual Aid Resources
There are a growing number of national mutual aid resources related to Covid-19. Here are two worth exploring:
Share how you’re making community and doing good on social with #adobespark.
Erika Lenkert is Editor in chief of GFF: Gluten-Free Forever Magazine and the founder of Cole Valley Cares volunteer group in San Francisco.