Just four days after Cathy Wang set up a quick Facebook page, the Greenwich Mutual Aid group had already begun helping some of the borough’s vulnerable people. Now it has hundreds of volunteers helping their neighbours and working alongside Greenwich Council’s community hub.
“Within a day of setting it up we had 800 members – it just spun out of control and became a very big thing”, says Wang. “On day four we were already fulfilling requests. Less than a week later, we were already getting volunteers and it had just started gearing up. At its highest rate we were getting 30 requests a day.”
With Britain in its sixth week of lockdown, GMA has over 1,000 registered volunteers and 23 WhatsApp groups covering near enough the whole borough.
Ms Wang, a digital transformation consultant who has lived in Greenwich for just over a year and a half, realised quickly that an organised army of volunteers would be vital in pulling through the pandemic.
But Greenwich Mutual Aid is more than a standard volunteer group. With its own processes and procedures in place, it’s the borough’s latest hi-tech start up. It uses the latest software to keep it all ticking over – Trello for task lists, Slack for communicating, Google forms.
Wang says: “The cool thing is my background is in tech start-ups – we operate like that. Volunteers donate their time and energy, they are fantastic – we just make it run. We verify our volunteers, we have 1,000 registered and more than half have been checked and trained for health and safety. It’s been quite full-on and quite crazy.”
Now, after a hectic few weeks, the creative volunteers have started to organise community initiatives on top of their basic volunteer work.
Volunteers have set up Sew4Good, taking donations and sewing scrubs and masks for GP surgeries, hospitals and other healthcare facilities. Others, such as professional musicians, have started recording performances for the community and the latest idea is to host a virtual pub quiz.
Working closely with the council and its community hub, Greenwich Mutual Aid is providing hyperlocal help – matching its volunteers with close neighbours in need.
GMA has a fleet of 40 drivers delivering food parcels and handling donations and helping Greenwich Foodbank, whose fundraiser is approaching £22,000.
Wang says volunteers have got used to the workload. “We knew that there would be a wave that would hit when the lockdown happened, and we foresaw that week two would go the way it did. That was full-blown, we had requests left, right and centre.
“We have people who work in the third sector and we knew the poverty and food situation would come up quickly. We also knew our request rates would come down and we should be able to not do so much, and our effort would be more towards initiatives.
“In the long run we might keep some cases in the neighbourly way, but once the crisis tapers down we might hand it over to the council and let it become more joined up. It is quite cool – we’ve passed the shock stage very early. We realise this is our lives now, it is a full-grown crazy thing that we don’t even see as crazy anymore. People really want to help.”
Until last week the group had been donating regularly to Queen Elizabeth Hospital – but the hospital now has enough stocks to be able to pass on donations, so GMA is targeting other channels. The volunteers have successfully applied for government funding for grassroots programmes – but so far all the costs have been covered by the volunteers stepping up to help.
GMA is currently organising more donations to Greenwich Foodbank and the Blackheath-based charity MumsAid, which provides free and low-cost counselling for women experiencing mental or emotional difficulties during pregnancy or after having a baby.
It is open to working with GPs, charities, and key worker organisations that need help – to get in touch, contact info[at]greenwichmutualaid.co.uk.
TOM BULL is a freelance journalist and former local democracy reporter in SE London. We have been able to commission him to write for us because of the generosity of people who fund 853 with monthly memberships. Thank you to all who have helped.
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