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Neighbor network 'Mutual Aid' answers community calls for help

Mutual Aid of the Midlands started shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began, and volunteers are ready to feed local needs.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — ere at News 19, we're part of the Next Door community app and see the need for a helping hand.

At the same time, we're also witnessing neighbors helping neighbors on that platform.

Today, we're taking a closer look at a local grassroots organization we found through the app.

At the start of the pandemic when thousands of South Carolinians became jobless overnight, Mutual Aid was born.

"In lower income communities, mutual aid happens all the time but it's not normalized. Neighbors are always helping each other, and we're just expanding that spirit," said volunteer, Carla Damron.

Mutual Aid is a volunteer-based organization in Columbia with about 70 members.

"The Mutual Aid way is that we're not really asking questions," said volunteer, Dylan Gunnels. "We just know that you need help."

Midlands residents in need of necessities, masks, toys and games for kids, or just a person to talk to can contact volunteers to ask for help. Volunteers can be reached through the Mutual Aid website, Facebook page or a bilingual telephone hotline (888-927-6679).

Credit: Omme-Salma Rahemtullah

"No questions asked," said volunteer, Omme-Salma Rahemtullah. "You need your light bill paid? We're gonna figure out how to get together some money."

Credit: Omari Fox & Omme-Salma Rahemtullah

Once volunteers receive a request, the Mutual Aid network springs into action.

"Here's the need. Who can respond?" said volunteer, Deborah Billings, who helped start Mutual Aid. "We've had responses that range from, 'Hey, I'll call Instacart and make the order', and five people will pitch in $20 each and we get that grocery bill covered."

The organization doesn't just wait on requests. They brainstorm on a weekly basis about other needs in the community, like a gift card drive and an e-drive to meet electronic and internet access needs.

Credit: Omme-Salma Rahemtullah

"We're currently doing an e-drive to request if people have electronics they're not using to donate to us," said Rahemtullah. "Someone just actually sent me one in the mail. It's a tablet."

Credit: Omme-Salma Rahemtullah

For local seniors who need a ride to the store, Mutual Aid volunteers can help. 

A representative from the state's Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) also reached out to Mutual Aid in efforts to get masks for employees and the youth at the facility. Volunteers got to work immediately to fill that need. 

"There was a call out from the Lutheran Services, who works with adults with developmental delays, that they needed activities for adults to do," said Rahemtullah. "We put it out on Facebook, this woman saw it...and she dropped off 10 big garbage bags full of yarn."

In some cases when supplies were low to make masks, volunteers reach out to their network of friends who help fill the gap.

"I'm really amazed at how people are willing to contribute," said Damron. "Even if you just call friends and say, 'We have a family that hasn't had groceries in two weeks, can you help?' and they're saying, 'Sure!'"

Aside from volunteers helping financially, Mutual Aid is teaming up to help the Latino community in an effort called "Sabor Latino". Thanks to a group of sponsors, Tienda Latina Pasabien, a grocery store in West Columbia, is providing food to migrant families every week. The Sabor Latino initiative is coordinated by Mutual Aid volunteer, Nelly Jolley.

Credit: Brandon Jolley

Billings says Mutual Aid connected with Eat Smart Move More, and after a written proposal about Sabor Latino, the organization received a $3,000 grant to help fund the initiative. She says $25 a week can feed a family of four.

Credit: Brandon Jolley

"Now in the time of this pandemic, certain resources like unemployment benefits, like the CARES Act, they are not accessible to these community members," said Billings of the Midlands Latino community. "How do they pay for their rent? How do they pay for their food? It becomes really a critical, critical issue."

Credit: Brandon Jolley

The organization isn't limited to donation drives or grocery delivery. They try and meet any need, such as helping in the fight for tenants who can't pay rent due to the pandemic. Gunnels started the petition to push this conversation with state and local leaders.

"Maybe there's the possibilities of working out long-term payment plans for short-term missed payments because of the COVID situation," said Gunnels.

If you'd like to volunteer or if you're in need of assistance, call the Mutual Aid hotline at 888-927-6679 or visit mutualaidmidlands.org.

"We're all feeling powerless right now facing this virus, but this is a little thing we can do to help our neighbors," said Damron. "Everyone has something to offer."

"I really feel like this is what we're called to do," said Gunnels. "I feel like we are called to love our neighbor, we are called to serve our neighbor."

*PSA video created by Aidan Thomason, a USC Honors College McNair Scholar.