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2 years later, B-N Facebook group is still going strong, despite origins in the COVID-19 pandemic

We're in this together Bloomington-Normal! screengrab
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Founded in mid-March of 2020, the Facebook group was envisioned as a short-term effort to connect people in the early days of the pandemic. Its founder, Michele Schulz, said at the time the Twin City community was "living in a world we've never known before."

In the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when nothing was certain — except for the fact that nothing was certain — a local woman sat down at her computer and decided she would try to do something.

That's how local the Facebook group, "We're in this together, Bloomington-Normal!" got its start. Founded in mid-March of 2020, the group was envisioned as a short-term effort to connect people in the early days of the pandemic. Its founder, Michele Schulz, who has since passed administrative responsibilities to others, said at the time the Twin City community was "living in a world we've never known before."

"At times like this, we need each other," she wrote in the founding statement. "In fact, we become stronger as a community in times like this. I felt moved to start a group to help each other. If you need something, please post it here."

Since then, the group has outlived Schulz's initial give-it-a-few-months-and-it's-over vision, and that's due to couple of reasons. First, the pandemic and its related consequences stretched beyond what Shulz or any of the early group members imagined.

Second, the need for helping hands was greater than what Schulz or current administrator Suzanne Kelley thought. Kelley's day job as a special education teacher had, to a certain extent, exposed her to the inequalities within the Bloomington-Normal community, but to be on the receiving end of post after post from people seeking whatever aid they could get was a different experience entirely.

"Nobody expected this to be so prevalent, the needs to be so noticeable right now," she said in a recent interview.

In that interview, Kelley spoke with WGLT about her role as one of the group's administrators; she was joined by a co-administrator, Mindy, who requested her last name be withheld for privacy and employment reasons.

As the two-year mark of the COVID-19 hitting Illinois nears — along with the anniversary of the WITTBN Facebook page's founding — Kelley said she recently spoke with Schulz, who gave her the green light to shut down the group if moderating it was too much to handle.

"I said, 'I can't do that — there's just so much need,'" Kelley said. "I really think that probably 25-30% of our posts are probably only the ones that are being answered with needs met. There are still a big chunk that are not being answered because some people have big needs that are harder to meet."

How the group works

The way the group works goes like this: Members are admitted by administrators after answering a few pre-admission questions. Once accepted, members can post requests for aid, offer help, or comment on other posts. Posts requesting help range from people looking for someone to practice a language with to people requesting financial help for housing or rent. Asking for food or for rides to food pantries, grocery stores and work is not uncommon either. Some people ask for clothes — for babies, adults or children. During the holidays, food and gift requests abound.

The group's administrators — six, in total, all of them women, with Kelley as the head admin — vet the posts for language and adherence to group rules. That's not just a content curation-related effort; it's also an effort to reduce the opportunity for people to make fraudulent requests. Learning how to navigate potential scams while also being sensitive to people has been a work in progress, said Mindy.

"If you need a hotel room, we're not going to suggest that people send you cash," she said. "We might put the cash together and go and get the room for the person, or if a member wants to donate a room for the night, we would get that room paid for (in) the other member's name."

"We're trying to nudge people away from straight cash assistance, just because I can hand you $50, but what are you going to do with it if you can't get anywhere to use it, or you don't have identification — there's so many different situations that could be occurring," Mindy added. "We are trying to gently nudge away from the ways that people get scammed the easiest."

As another example, Kelley said when it's possible, members have pivoted to using Instacart to get people food in some cases. A donor shops for items and has it delivered to the person in need. And when the people who give are interested in the results, Kelley said administrators try to check back with the recipient, if possible.

Protective measures aside, Kelley said she'd rather focus on the fact that the majority of those seeking help from other group members do, in fact, need it.

"The good always wins out over the few that choose to scam," she said. "I don't foresee us having big scammers come along. We're just trying to be a little bit more eyes open, but always with the heart open first."

Both Kelley and Mindy said they knew that even before 2020, a significant number of people in the Twin Cities struggled to meet basic needs — whether it was putting food on the table, getting transportation to work, or, as of late, finding available and affordable housing. While the needs they see now in the posts are not typically COVID-related, Kelley said "there is some overlap."

Largely, both women agreed that requests for transportation and housing are the biggest issues facing the community.

"I never realized how many people do not have vehicles, or do not have access to transportation in Bloomington-Normal," said Kelley, adding it compounds other issues, like access to food.

"There really are so many food banks in Bloomington-Normal, but what good are the food banks if the people that truly need it can't get there? (Maybe) mom is at home with three kids and she has no transportation, or she doesn't drive, how feasible is it for her to load two or three kids on a bus to have to go to a food bank to get that food? I would love to have all the time in the world and not have a job and be able to go pick up food for people, but I don't have that."

Mindy said the hope is that, as the group grows, more "dots" can be connected between those who have the means and those who have the needs.

"What would be nice is if we could get some more community buy-in," she said. "We have the things, but we need to get them somewhere. Right now, on some weekends, it's three or four of us running around with bags of stuff to get from people, or give to people. It would just be great if there was a social service agency that does all of this, but there isn't."

To ask either Mindy or Kelley what they'd like to see beyond dots-being-connected within the group is to hear great aspirations for the Bloomington-Normal community; to have those aspirations, they say, is a little bit of a burden in itself.

"There are lots of times that I've not met a need and I'll stay up thinking about how I'm going to meet that need the next day," Kelley said. "I really keep wanting the group to be better — I keep wanting us to meet more needs and I put a lot of pressure on myself to do that. I'm hard on myself, as well; I have to keep telling myself, 'You can't do it all. You're not going to solve all the problems. You're not a social service agency.'"

Added Mindy: "What keeps me up is that there are food deserts, there are people who can't get housing, there are people who can't get to the places they need to get — and it's like they fall into a big, black hole and they're ignored by Bloomington-Normal governments, the township agencies. As soon as the funds run out, it's like people disappear to them, but they are still there and they still need assistance. I've always been trying to work to get those things to be better, but when you start to administrate a group like this, it magnifies what you know."

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