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Like many Mainers, Tammie Stone is out of work and looking for help.
The 40-year-old lost her job as a cook at Erik’s Church in Windham on March 15 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said. The paychecks from working nights at the bar and restaurant were all that supported her family of four, including her 6-year-old daughter Madeline, who needs near constant care for chronic gastrointestinal issues.
Her partner, Jake Stone, can’t work because his feet are still numb from falling 20 feet off a roof more than two years ago.
Stone knew she couldn’t afford to miss even one paycheck, so she filed for unemployment almost immediately upon losing her job, she said. A month later, after several back and forths with the state, she still isn’t sure when she’ll receive assistance, or how much.
She’s been similarly flummoxed by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which she says is still processing her paperwork for benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
The closest nearby food pantry is open once every two weeks. She couldn’t drive there anyway because her 2003 Subaru Forester broke down two weeks ago, and she has no money to fix it. She’s still waiting for her federal stimulus check to arrive.
In late March, out of money and almost out of the firewood she needs to heat her house, she did what hundreds of other Mainers have done since the pandemic began: She mustered the courage to ask strangers on the internet for help. Almost immediately, people Stone never met began delivering needed items like food and bundles of firewood to the door of her Casco duplex.
Stone had turned to the Maine Coronavirus Community Assistance Facebook page, which over the last month has connected those who need help with those offering it. Cass Clemmer, 27, an emergency medical technician living in Orono, started the page on March 13, and it now has 20,000 members and more than a dozen volunteer moderators who sort through hundreds of posts and comments a day.
The page has become a lifeline for many Mainers struggling with the economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, as roughly 13 percent of Maine’s workforce has filed for unemployment over the past four weeks. Its loose, crowd-sourced format means its legion of volunteers can sometimes provide faster, more targeted aid than overwhelmed state bureaucracies and social service agencies.
“That page is my only option,” Stone said. “I’ve got more help from complete strangers there than from the state of Maine.”
Four different groups of strangers have donated time and money to help her and her family, she said. They have given wood, paper towels, toilet paper and food. One woman even bought over-the-counter medication for her daughter and shipped it to Stone’s house.
Last week, as an April snowstorm began to move across the state, David Suitter, pastor of the Sebago Church of the Nazarene, and his wife Jennifer picked up a $100 Hannaford gift card and loaded eight bundles of firewood into the back of their Kia Soul. They then delivered it to Stone just hours after she posted about needing firewood to the page.
“I didn’t think I was going to get any help, especially with a snowstorm,” Stone said. “But because of [the Suitters] we were warm that night, and we had food in our bellies.”
‘We’re this stopgap’
The sudden growth of the page’s membership points to gaps in the resources available to struggling Mainers, said Clemmer, the page’s founder.
“We’re this stopgap while the state creates more resources or other organizations can develop more fleshed out things that we can direct people to,” Clemmer said.
The page also allows people who are scared and looking for help to get immediate responses. That can be particularly empowering in a global pandemic that has forced billions of people into a state of anxious waiting.
“There is so much uncertainty. We don’t know when the cases are going to increase. We don’t know when unemployment comes through,” Clemmer said. “But people post and say, ‘I really need diapers, and I don’t know what to do,’ and within 10 minutes you get a person saying, ‘I got diapers for you.’ That kind of response time is the kind of thing an organization just couldn’t do.”
People have built or utilized existing community response and mutual aid networks throughout the country to help blunt the hardship brought on by the pandemic, which has resulted in more than 22 million million unemployed. In Maine, assistance groups have begun showing up at the county level. People from as far away as Maryland have contacted the Maine Coronavirus Community Assistance Facebook page seeking help.
As of Friday, the page had 203 posts marked “assistance provided” and 259 posts marked “assistance needed.” However, Clemmer said the numbers are much higher, as moderators are not meticulous about keeping track of the number of requests and responses.
While the page allows people to connect in real time, running it smoothly still requires volunteer moderators to put in a substantial amount of work while continually tweaking rules and policies.
Clemmer’s hastily recruited group of volunteers have dealt with many of the same problems that large social media platforms have grappled with in recent years: making sure they are providing accurate information and enabling productive human connections while keeping things on topic and enforcing civility.
Rachel Flehinger, 44, of Portland spends about four hours a day administering the page, which includes approving posts, turning off comments when a post has served its purpose, and putting up posts for people who need help but wish to remain anonymous.
But as much as the moderators work to keep things positive, there are members who question the motives of those requesting assistance.
“One of the biggest challenges with social media is everybody gets to answer,” Flehinger said. “We have to stop and say to people, ‘This is not a place where we are judging.’”
To her, it now feels as though there are more and more people asking for help
“It’s changed. It started with a lot of offers, and it’s now turned into more assistance needed, which is sad,” Flehinger said. “I think people are sort of starting to say, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be giving things away. Maybe I should start holding onto stuff.’”
Kimberly Coon, 45, of Westbrook doesn’t hang onto anything for long. She’s been using local Facebook pages for more than a decade to give whatever she can find — food, linens, pots and pans, toiletries — to people in a tough spot for free, despite the fact that she is on disability due to a work injury and cares for three sons with special needs.
Coon grew up in South Portland, where as a child she occasionally brought home people in need to her parents’ house for dinner. She doesn’t give to organizations, not because she has anything against them, but because she has a knack for finding ways to help people directly.
“I have been doing this for a long time, so I know what resources there are, what I have on hand, and where I can get things,” Coon said.
Since the pandemic hit Maine, Coon estimated she has given resources to between 20 and 30 people she met on the Maine Coronavirus Community Assistance page. She has driven up to an hour in any direction to deliver whatever she can.
One of those people was Latoya Williams of Windham. Williams has been getting $279 a week in unemployment since losing her job as an assembler at Portland’s ComNav Engineering in November, she said. She recently had multiple jobs lined up in hotels, but those fell through when the pandemic hit.
She and her two children had to move into a Motel 6 when she lost her housing, and she only had enough money for one night.
She turned to the Maine Coronavirus Community Assistance page, and, among other help, she learned somebody from the page had paid for four nights at the hotel. She still doesn’t know who it was who called the hotel and made the payment.
“That page has been my lifeline for almost five weeks now,” Williams said. “I would have been sleeping in my car and may have lost my kids if it had not been for that group.”
Two weeks ago, Coon met Williams in the parking lot of the Westbrook Hannaford after connecting with her through the page. She gave her milk, juice, cereal, pizza, sandwiches, veggies and fruit.
“She was very thankful and very sweet,” Coon said. “I could tell she felt bad for asking for things because she kept apologizing. I told her, ‘You don’t need to apologize.’”
Williams has since gotten her stimulus check, but is still trying to find a place to live.
‘How many other people are in the situation I’m in?’
Back in Casco, Stone is grateful for the help she has received through the page. At the same time, she and her family have gone without. She reduced the dosage of medication for her child to conserve it, she said. She and her partner have skipped meals to make sure their children have enough food.
“It’s been terrible,” Stone said. “How many other people are in the same situation I’m in? I’m not the only one.”
She doesn’t have internet access at home except for her phone, which she converts to a hotspot so her kids can do their schoolwork online. She also uses her phone to get to the Facebook page. But her monthly bill of $70 is due at the end of the week and, as of now, she doesn’t see how she can pay it and is worried Verizon will disconnect her phone.
If that happens, she could lose access to the Facebook page, the unemployment office, her kids’ school, and the therapy sessions her daughter now receives remotely due to social distancing.
She struggles with asking for more, knowing other people are also in need, she said. She reminisced about when she moved with her family to Casco seven years ago. Both she and her partner were employed.
“We were very stable,” Stone said, before coming back to the present. “This is the worst our life has been. We feel very helpless. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
Stone isn’t just worried about herself or her family. She’s also worried about the senior woman who lives in the apartment above her. She has no one who comes and checks on her, Stone said, and depends on Stone and her family.
Every day they bring her food and other items. She doesn’t have a car or internet. When Stone tried to tell her about the pandemic and social distancing, she didn’t understand or believe it, so they brought her an old TV to watch the news and see what the pandemic had done to the world.
“She’s scared, and she’s worried, and she doesn’t know what’s going to happen,” Stone said.