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Sunday, May 24, 2020

Whatcom County mutual aid groups try a little kindness

Community members come together online to do good in a time of uncertainty

During uncertain times, community members are coming together to offer mutual aid and support. // Photo illustration by Victoria Corkum

By Victoria Corkum

Since Gov. Jay Inslee issued the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order on March 23, mutual aid groups have developed throughout Whatcom County with hopes of offering support to their neighbors and community.

“We all know right now is a really tough time for a lot of people,” said Caitlyn Blair, a Happy Valley Mutual Aid group member. “It’s important to be able to build trusting relationships with those around us to make sure that everybody is getting their needs met.”

Happy Valley Mutual Aid is a team of approximately 65 people with a common goal to build trusting, long-term relationships to meet the needs of all members of their community.

“They are essentially a group to build relationships with people in the community,” Blair said. “They’re creating support for those who are really needing it most now.” 

A public Facebook group has been the main source of networking as members strive to utilize one another’s skills and offerings to further community impact as stated in the organization’s  mission statement.

The group works to offer a variety of support including grocery delivery, child care options and providing updates involving food handout stations or public bathrooms within the city. Happy Valley Mutual Aid highly values ensuring support within their immediate neighborhood and externally, Blair said.

“Whatever anyone’s beliefs are in this world, I think everybody can come to a general consensus and agree that we all want to make sure our needs are met,” Blair said.

There are a variety of support groups throughout the county including the overarching Whatcom Mutual Aid which has over 385 members on Facebook group. 

Rain Forever, a member of this group, said she is experiencing difficulties when it comes to receiving support while experiencing housing insecurity. 

“There hasn’t been anybody from those pages to help,” Forever said. “It’s near impossible to get them to understand that there are people being impacted by all these rules.”

Forever said she’s been on the move for the past four years. By utilizing campgrounds, hostiles and the occasional hotel, Forever has been able to travel somewhat freely.

“My living situation is a huge issue while everything is going on,” Forever said. “This pandemic has made everything shut down so I can’t even stay at campgrounds.”

During the pandemic, Forever has found it increasingly difficult to locate a sustainable location to sleep safely, with little help from mutual aid groups. Police officers have often been notified of individuals who are sleeping outside and many have been arrested, she said.

“One group was raising money for people but they wouldn’t help minimum wage workers and the disabled,” Forever said. “I talked to one of them who kept saying, ‘You had this situation before COVID[-19].’ If you’re going to think of things that way then you wouldn’t help anybody because everybody had something where they didn’t prepare for COVID[-19].”

Forever said she’s found ways to get by, but she encouraged members of all mutual aid groups to be more mindful of the variety of people who need help.

“They need to actually find out how people are being impacted before they shut people out,” Forever said. “Look at the impacts that people are experiencing before just sending them off.”

Blair said that although groups like Happy Valley Mutual Aid are smaller than Whatcom Mutual Aid, they are striving to solve large scale issues with individuals like Forever. She said recognition of people experiencing housing and food insecurity is increasing within the group.

“People making deliveries to folks that are actually homeless or setting up spots in town to have food drop offs, this is something I’ve already seen and I can see more of it happening,” Blair said. “As the group is growing and as more folks are gaining the capacity to do those things, I definitely see that happening in the future.”

According to James Loukey, professor of anthropology at Western, mutual aid groups forming in response to the impact of COVID-19 are following the pattern of human nature.

“Humans do come together in times of crisis, almost all the time and almost all the people,” Loukey said. “For the most part, it does bring out some of the best qualities of humanitarianism and compassion.”

As someone who studies the development of human cultures and societies, Loukey described the pandemic as an opportunity for the community to establish a kind, more patient society than anything experienced before.

“Daily life takes over,” Loukey said. “There’s all the noise of regular life and you hardly ever think about some of the most important things. Now I think people are feeling that much more.”

In comparison to mutual aid groups in Whatcom County, Loukey said he’s witnessed similar situations during visits to Central America.

“I have been down there after an earthquake or hurricane, something that impacted the rural areas, the people are then homeless or some get killed,” Loukey said. “The people come together and they bring food or they provide shelter. Maybe a mother died and she was a nursing mother so other mothers will provide milk for the orphan.”

Loukey noted that it is simple human nature to reach out and offer help when others are in distress. However, Loukey encourages our society not to forget what this pandemic has done as  a whole.

“Once the curve gets flat, you want things to get back to normal,” Loukey said. “It’s like Pandora’s box, you can’t put the top back on things already escaped, things have changed. It won’t be the same. It will be different in a way that can potentially be beneficial for us.”

Loukey said it’s important to hold onto the growth occurring in the community and relationships during the pandemic. 

“Remember this time because it is a historical, important, profound time. Now the sharing of worry, anxiety or fear is something where we can be more empathetic,” Loukey said. “It’s important that we don’t forget that. Be more compassionate and caring, it will encourage people to do the same thing.”

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