To track the success of a Facebook group created to help families in need during the pandemic, its creator suggests you check out the "thank you" section. There you will find an outpouring of gratitude from those who have received an array of items and support. Baby food and formula, cleaning products, furniture and clothing – the list of donated items is long. But there's much more to it than material goods.
"It's always heartwarming to see that folks will come together and work together when the time is needed, and I never expected it to get as large as it has," said the creator of the Springfield Families Helping Families Facebook page, Scott McFarland. He started the page in March when it was first announced schools would be closed. The District 186 school board president and head of Serve Illinois said the effort's success has been the result of many people's collective action. "We've had over 500 requests for assistance. And most of those requests have been filled."
The group is divided into various sections. A major focus has been educational resources. There are also areas to talk about how to support local businesses, how to find emotional support and counseling and another for ways to volunteer. There are more than a dozen topic sections in all and thousands of posts.
Katharine Eastvold is one of the group's administrators who McFarland credits with its accomplishments. She said McFarland is "somebody who's really committed to volunteerism and community service in all parts of his life." Eastvold has known McFarland for years through her involvement with education issues. She's also met many new people through Springfield Families Helping Families, including Lynn Ehmen, who has been a force in getting micropantries stocked and spread throughout the Springfield area.
The pantries are stand-alone structures where people can take and give anonymously. The effort is not directly tied to the Facebook group, though the two intersect. Eastvold posts updates daily about where micropantries are located and what items are needed. There are more than 15 now in Springfield.
"She's such a people person, she just remembers everybody she's ever met and ever delivered food to," Eastvold said about Ehmen. Eastvold said whenever there are requests for food that go unmet, "I can just tag Lynn" and the call will be answered. Ehmen has teamed up with nonprofit OpenWorld Relief and others to help with the food supply.
Coordinating free food offerings has been a major part of what the Springfield Families Helping Families group does. "Really, I think the most forward-facing piece of the group is those micropantries," said McFarland. He said he plans to continue to keep the group, which now has more than 12,500 members, operating beyond the pandemic. "It just continues to kind of evolve on its own," he said.
The group is not directly affiliated with any specific organization or entity. Instead, it exists as a result of a genuine drive to make sure those in need are connected to those who can help. More than 150 posts are those of thanks: for helping a woman and her children as she moved to get away from an abusive relationship, for donating items to a newborn baby, for sharing vegetable plants and the list goes on.
Eastvold said the group has made more people aware of the gaps that need filled. "We're meeting needs that would exist anyway, even if this (pandemic) weren't happening," she said. "A lot of people who maybe weren't aware before have become aware of the kinds of needs that are perpetually here in our community and have committed to helping meet those needs in ways that they might not have thought of before."
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