LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — When her apartment’s lease ended in December, Heather Boyd said her landlord gave her two choices: leave or face eviction.
Boyd, 45, had fallen behind on rent after losing her job with the U.S. Census Bureau amid the coronavirus pandemic. She never received unemployment benefits, she said, despite calling the state office repeatedly. And rent assistance was slow coming through.
She packed up her things.
For several months, Boyd had been volunteering with Black Lives Matter Louisville, cooking meals for seniors, families and others in need.
Now it was her turn to seek help from the grassroots organization, and BLM Louisville came through. It paid for her and her 8-year-old son to stay in a hotel until they found permanent housing.
It was all part of BLM’s mutual aid efforts, which began before the pandemic but took on new life once businesses shut down, thousands lost their jobs and many felt unsafe leaving their homes.
“It’s a wonderful thing because a lot of times we depend on agencies and they don’t always have (the resources),” said Boyd, who has since found work as a pharmacy technician.
Mutual aid — work that involves sharing resources between community members — has gained attention globally through the pandemic as new and existing support networks created Facebook groups, online forms and hotlines to connect people with groceries, transportation and anything else they needed.
In Louisville, mutual aid programs popped up to take medications to seniors, feed restaurant workers and bring food and hygiene products to people who were unhoused.
Though lawmakers approved spending billions of dollars on federal aid to assist those affected by the pandemic, many programs had restrictions or didn’t have the capacity to get people resources quickly.
Mutual aid filled in the gaps, no strings attached, said people involved in the efforts.
“It’s being able to take care of each other, making sure that our community has the things that we need to lower the vulnerability in that community,” said Chanelle Helm, a founding member of BLM Louisville, which is not connected to the global network.
“You are to center the most vulnerable in your community and help folks build out what it means to take care of those people in your community.”
The work has now become a trendy topic. But its roots date back to at least the 1700s, when free Black Americans pooled resources to buy land, necessities and even each others’ freedom, according to Jessica Gordon-Nembhard, author of “Collective Courage.”
Mutual aid programs have traditionally served marginalized communities, such as immigrants, people with disabilities and HIV patients. But some of the most prominent efforts have come from Black communities, including the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast Program, which provided meals to kids in at least 36 cities in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Locally, some mutual aid programs created during the pandemic have already ceased operating, but others have continued by crowdsourcing funds on Facebook and through mobile apps.
Since April 2020, BLM Louisville has raised more than $170,000 on GoFundMe for its mutual aid work, which has included buying groceries and paying for housing, clothes and other necessities.
Harriett Rankin, 50, volunteers with the organization and rented a shuttle several times to take people to get COVID-19 vaccines.
“I had a laptop on the shuttle bus with me, and I registered them right on the bus with my laptop,” she said. “I had one location I had called so many times, they said, ‘Don’t worry, just bring the people in. Tell us they’re with BLM, and we’ll let them come on in.’”
Rankin is also one of half-a-dozen volunteers who has cooked meals through the pandemic. Each volunteer makes about 50 meals apiece three times a week, and other volunteers deliver the food to people’s homes.
“I can truly say that it’s been a great help in the community,” said Boyd, who is also on the cooking team. “We just try to feed people, people that can’t get out. We’ve had cancer patients, elderly patients, anyone we can reach that wants a hot meal.”
Boyd said cooking kept her busy while she was out of work, and she continued to make meals at her dad’s house after losing her apartment.
“At the end of the day, everyone needs someone, everyone needs something,” she said. “Just being able to give back, that makes my heart smile, that makes me feel good. I don’t have a whole lot, but I have a cooking skill.”
Rebecca Ward, 31, grew up in a home that prioritized giving. Her grandmother bought Christmas presents for neighborhood kids, and her mother kept umbrellas in her car’s trunk to hand out on rainy days.
When the pandemic started, Ward used that foundation to start Clothe the West, which offers new clothing to children in underserved areas.
The program celebrated its one-year anniversary in June with a community festival, where vendors offered medical screenings and free hygiene products.
“I think that if we have access to it, it is our duty to help someone else that might need that assistance,” Ward said. ”... I want people to know we’re serving folks with all of our hearts. No stipulations and no judgment.”
Volunteers with Black Lives Matter Louisville are now raising funds to build out a kitchen at a church owned by the organization at 3900 W. Broadway.
Stop by Fish Fry Fridays at the church starting at 5 p.m. Aug. 13 and Aug. 27. Or swing by Soul Food Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. Aug. 15 and Aug. 29 at Black Market Kentucky, 2313 W. Market St.