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For many New Yorkers, the COVID-19 quarantine has prompted stocking up and hunkering down.
But some intrepid Samaritans have sprung into action to aid vast numbers of people who can no longer fill the fridge or put food on the table.
All this week, THE CITY is profiling some of the grassroots volunteers feeding those at risk of going hungry, one neighbor at a time.
Six weeks ago, Astoria neighbors Margaret Horning and Chloe Seibert didn’t know each other.
But with the coronavirus crisis escalating, both were looking for a way to help.
Horning, an accountant for film and television, learned about a group called Astoria Mutual Aid from her therapist, and then from a friend. The group, founded by a local couple, started with flyers and a spreadsheet and aimed to help those affected by COVID-19.
Seibert, an artist, heard about the effort at home.
“My roommate, who’s a social worker, was like, ‘Ever hear of mutual aid?’” Seibert said during a recent video call with Horning.
She hadn’t. But now, Horning said with a laugh: “You are the mutual aid.”
Sending a Message
On top of their own full-time jobs, the two women work together, serving as air traffic controllers of sorts for the group’s ever-expanding food relief efforts.
More than two months into the virus outbreak, Astoria Mutual Aid has grown to an organization of 500 volunteers, responding to hundreds of requests a week in Queens.
The work involves fielding calls from people looking for help and finding volunteer matches for them, and coordinating a twice-weekly shuttle that makes deliveries of food gathered through donations and food banks.
About three-quarters of the group’s requests are for groceries, the pair said — either from people who can’t leave the house, or who can’t afford food right now.
For those who can’t pay for food, volunteers pick up the tab.
“We send out a message to nearby neighbors and we’ll ask if they can cover the cost. Or we crowdsource the cost of the groceries. So like four people … split the cost of $100 worth of groceries for a random person,” Horning said.
Some volunteers help pay, others help making deliveries, some offer translation services — the group has set up WhatsApp chats between volunteers and those who need help in about a dozen languages — and others answer calls to the hotline, (646) 397-8383.
“It’s grown exponentially. We started off with like, three or four requests a day,” Seibert said. These days, it’s dozens. “We had one crazy day last week where we took, what, 50 calls in 24 hours?”
“Now we have two people, generally, working the shifts at the same time to help with the flow,” Horning said.
‘Lend a Hand’
Calls come in from all kind of people: elderly folks, the immunocompromised, “people with big families that are sick, people who are undocumented,” Seibert said. Young people also seek help, Horning said.
“I’ve had college students that are younger than me calling and asking for food assistance,” she said.
For now, the duo feel they are meeting the needs of the people who call.
But Seibert says they are “certainly not meeting the needs of the greater community” of Western Queens or the rest of the borough. And finding what they need for those they serve is a growing logistics puzzle.
“We’re just like constantly shuffling and reassessing and reaching out to new people and finding new resources,” she said.
Both women have done some organizing work before — Seibert as a labor organizer, Horning in arts-based fundraising and local politics — but nothing like this.
“It gives you a little sense of control over the situation if you know that you can at least be helping someone else,” Horning said. “I always thought it was great advice that, if you’re feeling sorry for yourself, maybe, you know, lend a hand.”
Do you have a neighbor helping your New York City community during the coronavirus crisis? Tell us about them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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