ASTORIA, QUEENS — Ross Mudrick broke the news over a panini lunch at Il Bambino: He told his 7-year-old daughter, Emma, that her mid-March spring break trip to Louisiana and Los Angeles wouldn’t be happening after all, as concerns over the new coronavirus had just started to ramp up.
As Emma started sobbing, her family reminded her that they were all in this together — and that they had a very important reason to stay put in their home neighborhood of Astoria.
“We said, ‘We’re not doing this trip, but, you know, there’s a lot of work for us to do here,'” Mudrick recalled in a phone interview. “The community needs us here.”
Mudrick was referring to a fledgling idea for a local mutual aid network, or, in simpler terms, an organized way for people to help other people.
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On March 14, Mudrick and his wife, Maryam Shariat Mudrick, brought Emma around the neighborhood to post fliers about the newly-launched Astoria Mutual Aid Network.
“New Yorkers look out for each other!” the fliers read. “While we all deal with the uncertainty of Covid 19, your neighbors are here to help.”
More than two weeks later, the Astoria Mutual Aid Network has amassed nearly 500 volunteers to provide free, non-emergency assistance to neighbors who are especially vulnerable to falling seriously ill if they contract COVID-19.
Volunteers help with everything from buying groceries and picking up medical prescriptions to arranging transportation to doctor’s appointments and keeping neighbors company while they have to isolate or quarantine themselves.
The initiative is beneficial for its volunteers, too, some of whom are newly unemployed and are itching to find ways to feel productive, Mudrick said. There’s even a mental health aspect.
“For me, this is anti-anxiety medication, no doubt,” Mudrick told Patch.
The Astoria Mutual Aid Network is just one of many grassroots groups cropping up to help neighbors, small business owners and health care workers who are suffering during the COVID-19 pandemic. The idea has taken root in communities both citywide and across the country.
Astoria, which has an estimated population of 164,000, is becoming particularly rich with these initiatives.
Evie Hantzopoulos is running a private Facebook group where hundreds of Astoria residents are crowdsourcing ways to support local businesses, posting links to coronavirus-related GoFundMe campaigns and sharing information on everything from where to get a bike to how undocumented families can stay safe and get help during the pandemic.
“There’s a group working on sewing masks. There are people that say, ‘Hey, I just talked to this nurse at this hospital, they need these supplies, who can get them to them?'” Hantzopoulos, also a Queens Community Board 1 member, said. “There are different ways people are using the space to both organize and get information out.”
Brainstorming in that Facebook group led to the creation of an Astoria Mutual Aid Network spreadsheet, where locals are listing ways to support specific businesses in the neighborhood and tracking eateries still open for takeout or delivery.
Hantzopoulos, who also volunteers for the Astoria Mutual Aid Network while balancing a full-time job, also had a hand in the creation of Queens Feeds Hospitals, which grew out of other local organizing efforts.
“That’s how I channel my concern, like, okay, what’s the action I can take, what is it that I can do?” Hantzopoulos told Patch in a phone interview. “Our own well-being is directly tied to the well-being of our community.”
The 10-member Queens Feeds Hospitals team is organizing daily lunch and dinner deliveries from local restaurants to health care workers at Mount Sinai Queens and Elmhurst Hospital. A GoFundMe page has raised more than $13,000 to fund the deliveries, which started Monday.
Queens Feeds Hospitals is partnering with Frontline Foods, a new organization whose mission is to provide meals to local hospital workers across the country. There are already Frontline Foods chapters in nearly a dozen U.S. cities, according to the group’s website.
Two of the organizers working on Queens Feeds Hospitals are also behind Astoria Together, which aims to support local restaurants by sharing current business mandates, ways to get funding assistance and information about who’s open for takeout and delivery.
“They’re all interconnected,” Hantzopoulos said of Astoria’s growing collection of volunteer initiatives.
Queens has so far been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s unclear how many COVID-19 cases are in Astoria, because the city’s health department hasn’t released any neighborhood data, but Queens accounts for a third of cases citywide and has seen the greatest number of deaths, with more than 300 as of Tuesday morning.
While much of the battle against the coronavirus is waged inside hospital wings, Murdick, the co-founder of the Astoria Mutual Aid Network, said anyone can help make a difference during the pandemic.
He suggests checking up on neighbors who are elderly or may be vulnerable to the virus in some other way, or even calling someone who lives alone to help them combat loneliness.