In Oregon, Neighbors Use Social Media To Offer — And Ask For — Help

Mar 22, 2020
Originally published on March 23, 2020 8:52 pm

Updated on March 23 at 12:21 p.m. ET

Orders to stay home leave many people glued to their screens. In rural Oregon, some people are turning their time on social media into tangible help for neighbors coping with coronavirus.

"I never thought I would say this, but we're using Facebook to express love to our neighbors in really meaningful ways," said Morgan Schmidt, moderator of a group for Bend, Ore. residents, where housebound people can crowdsource help with daily tasks.

"One of our first requests...was a gentleman who just said, "I'm immunocompromised. I don't want to go into Safeway. Can I have someone run in and grab my groceries and put them in my trunk?" recalled Schmidt.

Her days blur together since that first post in Pandemic Partners - Bend. Normally, she's a Presbyterian pastor. As the state banned gatherings and shuttered schools to try and slow the spread of coronavirus, her church also closed. She's pivoted to full time social media manager. Her Facebook group exploded overnight.

"I would comfortably say we have thousands of people ready to help," Schmidt said.

One person who asked for help is Mary Sheridan. She's been at home with two kids and the dog, ever since she came down with a fever and a cough. At the time we spoke, her family hadn't been tested for the coronavirus — though she later learned she had tested positive.

"I'm trying to stay informed, but not freak out, especially since ... I'm sick, and people I have been in contact with have gotten sick, too," Sheridan said at the time.

When her digital thermometer died recently, she posted to Pandemic Partners, and "within an hour, I had actually two different people stop by with batteries."

Now, Sheridan also has a list of people who live nearby and want to help if she needs it.

Fellow group member Diane Murray Fleck hadn't been sick, and said the posts made her more aware of what others are struggling with behind closed doors.

"We have to balance protecting ourselves, but also not lose our humanity," she said.

Ten people accepted her offer to drop off dinner.

"Moms home with young kids... another woman ordered a meal for her elderly mother. A gentleman was a diabetic and wanted a home cooked meal... And someone else nominated another family that they knew was very quietly challenged, and probably not going to reach out for themselves."

At each stop, she threw in "a roll of toilet paper with the garlic bread and the lasagna, just as a joke."

The deed helped her and her 12-year-old daughter deal with their own anxieties.

"The fact that there was still something we could do for others, and be safe at the same time," Fleck said.

Bend's Facebook group for neighborly goodwill also gets inundated with posts seeking medical advice. Moderators refer them to doctors.

For Schmidt, the Presbyterian pastor, responding to other messages has been heartbreakingly difficult.

"We've had a couple of questions from people who are like, 'I'm sick and I am waiting for a test to come back and I don't have housing right now,'" she said.

But, finding housing in rural Oregon is tough even when someone isn't sick. Schmidt connects the people with housing needs to social workers. Her group limits the focus to acts of kindness most easily performed by neighbors: errands, groceries, dog walks.

"These are bite-sized ways of responding that actually make a world of difference," she said.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Governments around the world are telling people to stay at home, and social distancing means a lot of people are glued to their screens. In rural Oregon, some people are using the time on social media to help their neighbors cope with the coronavirus. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Emily Cureton reports.

EMILY CURETON, BYLINE: The days have started to blur for Morgan Schmidt.

MORGAN SCHMIDT: One of our first requests on Sunday or on Thursday was a gentleman who just said, I am immunocompromised. I don't want to go into Safeway. Can I have someone run in and grab my groceries and put them in my trunk? I'll Venmo you.

CURETON: She's a Presbyterian pastor, wears a clergy collar. But her church is closed, and lately, she's become a full-time social media manager.

SCHMIDT: I never thought I would probably say this, but we're using Facebook to express love to our neighbors in really meaningful ways.

CURETON: Schmidt moderates a group called Pandemic Partners. It's limited to people who live in Bend, Ore.

SCHMIDT: I would comfortably say we have thousands of people ready to help.

CURETON: And it's exploding with willing volunteers. One of the people who's asked for help so far is Mary Sheridan. She's staying at home with two kids since coming down with a fever and a cough.

MARY SHERIDAN: (Coughing) Pardon me.

CURETON: Late last week, she learned she tested positive for the coronavirus.

SHERIDAN: So I'm trying to stay informed but not freak out, especially since we are sick or I am sick.

CURETON: When her digital thermometer died, Sheridan posted to Pandemic Partners.

SHERIDAN: Within an hour, I had, actually, two different people stop by with batteries.

CURETON: Now she also has a list of people who want to help if she needs it. Fellow group member Diane Murray Fleck hasn't felt sick and says the posts have made her more aware of what other people are struggling with behind closed doors.

DIANE MURRAY FLECK: And we have to balance protecting ourselves but also not lose our humanity.

CURETON: She recently dropped off dinner at 10 houses around town.

MURRAY FLECK: So we did put a roll of toilet paper in with (laughter) the garlic bread and the lasagna just as a joke.

CURETON: She says the deed helped her and her 12-year-old daughter to cope.

MURRAY FLECK: The fact that there was still something we could do for others and be safe at the same time...

CURETON: Bend's Facebook group for neighborly goodwill also gets inundated with posts seeking medical advice. Moderators refer them to doctors. And for Schmidt, the Presbyterian pastor who started Pandemic Partners, responding to some of the messages has been heartbreakingly difficult.

SCHMIDT: You know, we've had a couple of questions from people who are like, I'm sick, and I am waiting for a test to come back, and I don't have housing right now.

CURETON: But finding housing in rural Oregon is tough when someone isn't sick. Schmidt connects people with housing needs to social workers while her group focuses on acts of kindness that are most easily crowdsourced - errands, groceries.

SCHMIDT: Other people have even asked for help walking their dogs. I think the magic of why this is catching is because these are bite-sized ways of responding that actually make a world of difference.

CURETON: With the exponential growth of her Facebook group, she's still concerned about reaching people who aren't social media-savvy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE DIALING)

CURETON: That's why local volunteers are passing around a phone number with Schmidt's voicemail on the other end.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCHMIDT: Thank you for calling Pandemic Partners Bend.

CURETON: She encourages people to leave a message if they need help or if they're in a position to make someone else's life a little easier right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCHMIDT: Thank you for being a part of this community. We're in this together, and we care about you.

CURETON: For NPR News, I'm Emily Cureton in Bend, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "OUTLIER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.