BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – The Coronavirus Mutual Aid Network of Brevard started as a hyper-local way for people to get answers during the early days of the pandemic.
But now, the Facebook group Stacey and Sanjay Patel started last year, has become a way for neighbors to help neighbors.
“There were lots of questions about unemployment and there were questions about quarantine and there were questions about how to protect ourselves,” Stacey Patel remembers. “There was a lot of separation, a lot of disconnectedness. This was a way for us to reconnect with one another and make sure no one felt alone.”
When businesses started closing and people were out of work the questions about safety soon turned to questions about survival.
Patel said the initial idea was to provide an outlet for people to share their experiences. Soon they were sharing much more. Users began responding to those in need, offering help in a variety of ways.
“Entering the pandemic I knew that our safety net was insufficient,” Patel said. “It was folks who were needing assistance and saw that it was an effective place to do that and it was people who wanted to offer themselves and felt isolated and disconnected. They found a way to connect to one another. It was a service also to those who entered the group to help.”
Patel says she saw offers as simple as providing transportation all the way up to assistance with paying bills or even offering people a place to stay.
“I’m surprised at the amazing level of generosity, of spirit and resources that folks in our community have had,” Patel said.
The group started small among Patel’s friends but soon began to grow.
“Early on we were seeing a lot of grocery deliveries, some homelessness,” Patel said, recalling the moment the group went beyond distributing information and began distributing real world help.” Often utilities, these kinds of small things that we can resolve, they become miracles for families.”
Patel said that she’s been inspired by watching strangers help each other.
“So many of the things we encounter are simple things but think about how many of us don’t know the neighbor on either side of us if we needed help.”
Lauren Ogborn, owner of Serotonin Salon Suite in West Melbourne, says the members of the Coronavirus Mutual Aid Network Of Brevard helped her get through a very rough time. When salons were forced to close last March she lost all her income.
“It wasn’t just difficult, it was terrifying,” Ogborn remembers. Then her car broke down and she fell behind on rent.
“I reached out and said, ‘I know this is a long shot, it’s an expensive (car) part, but can someone help?’” she said.
It wasn’t long before someone offered to repair the car and money was donated to pay her rent.
“I felt really alone,” Ogborn said. “Stacey and this group made it to where I’m not alone and I know now that I’ve never been alone I just didn’t know where to reach out.”
Today the Coronavirus Mutual Aid Network of Brevard includes nearly 12,000 members. Patel says there is still plenty of need.
Every morning Patel logs into her account and is greeted by the stories of strangers.
“I’m just answering Facebook messages. My life is spent in Facebook messenger,” Patel said with a laugh. “When you invite the stories of 11,750 people into your life it can be a lot. But you also get to witness an incredible amount of joy and relief.”
Ogborn is back at work and now she’s offering help to others in the group.
“What she’s done is open up a floodgate of kindness here in Brevard,” Ogborn said. “It truly is a movement of kindness that she’s created.”
“When I look back on the year and there were over a half-million reactions to various posts and hundreds of thousands comments, it’s just heartening for me to see,” Patel said, adding that she’s been encouraged to see social media used a tool to create more in-person interaction.
“It’s interesting that at this time when we’re the most separated, Patel said. “For me, the experience has been a view of our community coming together.”