Jacob Richards had long feared he’d go out into the wilderness for a trip, and then return home to a totally different world, the aftermath of some kind of tear in society.
In March, it finally happened.
When he got back to Grand Junction after a week of leading outdoor learning with school children, he was faced with empty toilet paper aisles and low reserves of cheap, shelf-stable foods like pasta and rice. He’d glanced at some coronavirus memes while away, but they didn’t do justice to what was happening.
“People were acting in these impulsive, fear-based ways,” he said. “And I think one of the best things to do to combat fear is to get people involved.”
He knew someone had to facilitate that shift, and even though Richards had given up community organizing years before, he felt that someone was him. He created a Facebook page called Grand Junction Mutual Aid and invited 1,000 friends.
“Within a couple hours, I realized we were onto something,” he said, “and within three days we had 7,000 members.”
These days, the page has twice that. Members make requests on the page for help — maybe firewood or jackets for their kids — and responses often pour in. The group has also grown a vast network of volunteers who work with seniors, the unhoused community and others.
Early in the pandemic, a team of volunteers made 50,0000 masks to donate to local health care workers.
In a short time, the group had taken on a life of its own, just as it was meant to.
Mutual aid takes “the marketing slogan you see way too much nowadays of 'We’re all in it together,’” Richards said, “and we make that real.”
That’s most visible at the group’s weekly distribution event at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Grand Valley. Every Tuesday, people can both drop off donations to the Grand Junction church, and also take what they need.
Last week, a socially distanced line stretched into the parking lot as people waited to get inside to the tables heaped with tomatoes and bread, diapers and shiny blue packages of Rice Krispies Treats.
Between those who walk through the church and those who receive deliveries of food boxes, Mutual Aid feeds an estimated 500 families a week, in all different kinds of situations.
Blinking in the bright winter sun, Tyson Ellis explained one recent Tuesday that he was waiting to buy a foreclosed house, but that for now he was living in a tent. He tries to make it to the church distribution event every week.
“I actually look forward to watching people get a little happiness and hope, as much as getting the food is nice,” he said, laughing as he talked.
A few feet behind him, Meagan Cruickshank had tears in her eyes. Her voice was halting.
“It’s, uh, my first time struggling like this,” she said.
She explained that she had been a photographer for a local studio, but lost her job due to the pandemic. She still had a place to live, but didn’t know how long it would last.
Cruickshank said she felt comfort being there, alongside others also facing hard times.
“It feels so terrible to say that, because I don’t want anyone to be in a bad situation, but it helps to know that I’m not in this situation by myself,” she said.
By showing up that day, she’d become part of a community where there’s no big separation between those who give and those who receive. Many volunteers also take donated food home to their families every week, and some have experienced homelessness themselves. Cindy Stewart has lived unhoused a few times, and never had anything like this group back then.
“Oh, it would have been the world to me,” she said, wearing a hat shaped like a sock monkey over her long, grey hair.
Stewart volunteers as much as she can now. That day it meant making deliveries in a big van that was donated to her. Stewart loves seeing how happy it can make someone to receive a box of food — and a bit of connection.
“So it’s a blessing to us all. Just people helping people,” she said.
And there are no forms to fill out to receive that help, no interviews needed.
“Only requirement is: If you’re hungry, let us know!” Stewart let out. “And we’ll try to get you some food.”
For people who need help in Grand Junction and the surrounding area, it’s something to count on, when so much remains uncertain.