After fleeing from domestic abuse and enduring a stretch of homelessness, “Jane” felt like she was finally getting back on her feet.

With help from the New Orleans Family Justice Center, she got a job in the local events industry, then began taking courses to become a surgical tech and eventually moved into her own home. But the coronavirus pandemic came along and brought her hard-earned progress to a screeching halt.

“I saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and — boom — all this COVID-19 stuff happens,” said Jane, whose real name isn’t being used in order to protect her safety. “It devastated us, like so many other New Orleanians. We were hanging on by a thin thread and one little gust of wind ripped it.”

On top of losing her job, Jane and her 14-year-old daughter — who had been in direct contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 — became ill. She doesn’t own a car, so Jane couldn’t drive to the hospital for testing or medical treatment. She didn’t want to risk infecting others by relying on public transportation.

“We were both under the impression that we had (coronavirus),” she said.

While self-isolating, Jane and her daughter couldn’t visit the grocery to buy food. That’s when a concerned friend put her in touch with the New Orleans Mutual Aid Society — a group of Bayou St. John residents who support neighbors in need through meal and grocery deliveries.

“It’s hard for me to ask for help. … They, at every turn, have asked, ‘What can we get you?’” said Jane, noting that she’s been supplied with healthy goods as well as her family’s favorite sweet treat — gummy worms.

“What the New Orleans Family Justice Center did for our lives in every way, the New Orleans Mutual Aid Society has done to help us survive with food and sustaining ourselves. It’s just been a real godsend.”

Neighborhood watch

Six Mid-City residents established the New Orleans Mutual Aid Society on March 15, when the number of local coronavirus cases began to rapidly escalate.

“We knew that the impact of the virus was going to be widespread and that it was going to have consequences that included, of course, sickness, but economic impacts for people who are out of work, and whose businesses have been impacted by the closures,” said Sarah Pritchard, a founding member of the society and the executive director of the Broadmoor Improvement Association.

Over the past month, the New Orleans Mutual Aid Society has worked with dozens of community members to deliver about 1,500 meals and 60 bags of groceries to homebound seniors and immunocompromised people. They’ve developed safety protocols and a training presentation to help their volunteers work as safely as possible.

Toups’ Meatery has been donating 30 meals every day for the past few weeks to supplement the organization’s service.

Through the BIA’s food pantry and meal delivery program, Pritchard and her team have worked with the society and The Greater New Orleans Caring Collective to serve people outside of the Broadmoor neighborhood, leveraging the volunteer power and reach of mutual aid groups.

“The Greater New Orleans Caring Collective heard from a lot of folks across the city who are in need, and as they receive needs that maybe they don’t have capacity to meet, we’ve been helping out,” Pritchard said.

The collective is a grassroots organization that formed in mid-March because of the local coronavirus outbreak. Now comprising nearly 250 volunteers, it helps people stay safely quarantined — especially those who are most susceptible to the coronavirus — by providing free grocery deliveries and other helpful services, such as laundering clothes for people who lack a washing machine.

“We are a bunch of neighbors in neighborhoods trying to build trust with folks who are at risk right now, so that we can convince them to stay home and self-quarantine,” said Dan Bingler, food program coordinator for the collective. “The whole philosophy is that we all have to be good neighbors in our neighborhoods.”

In the first month since mobilizing, the members have provided more than 1,000 weeklong supplies of nonperishable food; donated and delivered more than 3,000 prepared meals; and purchased and donated over $2,000 worth of groceries. The Caring Collective is also connecting eligible individuals to food banks, and working to provide rental assistance for people who have lost their jobs.

It has formed partnerships with No Hunger NOLA, Familias Unidas en Acción, Second Harvest Food Bank, Southern Solidarity, Café Reconcile, Louisiana Public Health Institute, Cattail Cooks, Congreso de Jornaleros, NOLA Tree Project and LowerNine. Org, among others.

Looking ahead

Although the GNO Caring Collective and the New Orleans Mutual Aid Society formed in response to COVID-19, both organizations plan to continue helping their peers after the pandemic subsides.

“It’s clear to us now that this was already a public service that was missing from our community,” Bingler said. “We’re building relationships. We’re getting more volunteers. So this will be an ongoing service for as long as it’s necessary.”

Pritchard says her group’s mission is part of a “political project.”

“So many people are living day to day without the means to get their basic needs met, and this virus has exposed that in a big way,” Pritchard said.

The society members have a history of working within the community, Pritchard said; Jane is just one shining example of their ongoing efforts.

“We’re feeling better. We’re OK because of them,” Jane said. “Our worst day now is a million times better than our best day was years ago.”

“It just shows me there are good enough people that — when they can do something for other people — they’re not going to hesitate. Sometimes in life, you really just need not a handout, but a hand up. That’s what these two places have been.”

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