By Jeri Davis
Wash-oe Hands mutual aid group builds momentum
Feelings of apprehension quickly set in on the first day of working from home for members of the design and marketing agency Mabble Media. On March 16, the first day of mandatory school closures issued by Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak—and only a few days before he would order non-essential businesses to close—the team got on a video conference and sprung a plan to take action in the face of the deadly novel coronavirus, COVID-19, and its rapid spread. The result is a Facebook group and now website that’s connecting locals in need to locals with the ability to help. It’s called Wash-oe Hands.
“I think I woke up first thing in the morning and thought, ‘What’s a funny pun for a Facebook group?’ and that’s where the Wash-oe Hands came from,” said Liz Mumford, one of Mabble Media’s owners. “Watching the news, I was just feeling like these waves of mud were just being dumped on my head. I’m sure everyone was kind of feeling like that too.”
“We’re all kind of terrified of what’s happening or what might be happening,” said co-owner Bobby Stiehler. “It’s like, ‘OK, well, what can we do? We’re good at building systems. We’re good at websites, graphics. We’re good at gaining traction on projects. So let’s at least build something where people can help each other.’”
The Wash-oe Hands Facebook group was launched as a “place for Washoe County residents to come together to give good advice, share helpful information and bring together partners who can help serve” the community. Within a day it had some 500 members. People posted in the group offering tips on where to find toilet paper, offering to deliver toilet paper to those in need and even things like how to keep the kids entertained during quarantine. The size of the group grew quickly in the days to follow, and the requests and offers for help did too—with people asking for and responding to requests for assistance in everything from paying rent and buying groceries to procuring supplies to make homemade masks to hand out to health care workers.
Stiehler, Mumford and the rest of their team decided it was time to build a website to accompany the Wash-oe Hands Facebook group in order to reach more members of the community.
“Some of the demographics that are most in need of a system like this, like seniors and people who use English as a second language—you know, communities that maybe don’t have access to just go onto a Facebook group and ask for help—are probably the people we were trying to help the most initially anyways.”
Washoehands.com was built to simplify the process of asking for and giving help. It allows users to request a need, fill a need and share their knowledge of community resources. At first, this was all done with simple, manual forms that the Wash-oe Hands administrators had to manage. But thanks to Elena Fuetsch, the website has integrated a new system to automate the process.
“You know, it’s a lot of really motivated individuals. And often times with a community aid group you’re in the position of facilitating,” Fuetsch said. “You’ve got one person on your right hand and another person on your left hand. You’re trying to communicate, what are the needs? What are the details? What the new technology does is just break down the barriers by automating the collection of the information in a more structured way—and hopefully an easy way.”
So far, she said, it’s working beautifully.
“We’ve seen, already in the last 24 hours—I’ve personally checked in on five requests, and all five of them were already in contact with each other, in less than 24 hours,” Fuetsch said. “Whereas, sometimes if it’s a Facebook group, it’s a little bit unclear. Somebody will say, ‘I need something.’ Six people will respond. It’s not clear who’s actually taking action, and sometimes that person’s needs never get filled.”
In an effort to meet the needs of even more locals, the website is now being translated into Spanish by another volunteer.
Olivia Hernandez, who owns the social media company Sourdough Social, said she’s working with her father—a longtime local advocate for the Hispanic community—in order to get the translation done.
“Basically, the process is just I’m taking the forms and translating them the first time and then passing them along to him to make sure they make sense and that I haven’t picked out a random word from another country that doesn’t make sense—because I’ve learned a couple of different versions of Spanish than he has,” Hernandez explained, adding that the translation should be done in a matter of days.
With the website up and running and nearly 4,000 members belonging to the Wash-oe Hands Facebook group, the needs of people all over the county are being met. Among them is Marine Corps veteran Kendra Valintinno-Layland. After being shot in the head while in combat in Afghanistan, Valintinno-Layland spent several years battling alcoholism and only recently completed rehab, started work in a wood shop and gotten her own apartment again.
“I was having some troubles,” she said. “I still kind of am—but I was struggling, and my friend on Facebook told me that there was this great group and that I should probably try to join it. So I did, and it wasn’t until about a week later that I reached out for help. I needed help with some groceries and my rent because, as of right now, I can’t get through to unemployment. So they helped me with the rent and groceries and some necessities I needed for my apartment.”
Valintinno-Layland said she hopes when the virus passes to get a small business loan and open her own wood shop. In the meantime, she’s grateful for people and organizations that are donating time, money and other resources.
“It’s so amazing to know that people are really trying to come together during this COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “It feels really good to know that there are people out there who want to help those of us who are struggling.”
Many of the people who’ve teamed up with Wash-oe Hands have been providing services and doing charitable work in the community since well before the pandemic started. Good Supply Co. is one of those.
“Good Supply—we’re a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and we focus on redirecting retail waste,” said Robbie Moen, founder and director.
To explain the idea of retail waste, he used the example of returning a jacket to a store—unworn, tags still in place. Most people would expect the jacket to go back on the rack. But that’s very often not what happens.
“Usually that jacket will go straight into a pile to be thrown into a landfill or, depending on the organization, just be burned,” he said. “So, there’s a lot of retail waste in our current system. So what we focus on is partnering up with major retailers in Northern Nevada. We’re currently partnered with 14 or 15 major retail locations spanning from Gardnerville all the way up to Lemmon Valley. And every week we receive those items that would normally just get put in a landfill or incinerated. We pick up anywhere between 10 and 20 pallets every single week. And every week, you know—it wouldn’t be unusually to pick up 50 to a hundred grand worth of products that would normally just get thrown away.”
In the past year and a half, Good Supply Co. has helped redirect nearly $1.2 million worth of products locally—ranging from things like décor and hygiene products to furniture and small home appliances. Normally, Moen explained, his group partners with nonprofits and schools to get the goods distributed. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s seen more and more people in need.
“Usually, our items end up in kind of obvious places—people rebuilding their lives, people who can’t afford to get their hands on these items very easily,” he said. “Since the crisis, since the pandemic, that group has grown to include a lot more people, given the economic situation it’s caused. So, through Wash-oe Hands, we’ve partnered up and created a questionnaire for people who’ve been economically impacted. So they can fill out the questionnaire and send it in—and we’ve been sending out packages, sometimes multiple boxes, filled with stuff to help people meet their needs and bring some comfort.”
“We’re wanting all hands on deck, and we want to empower everyone in their own way.” Liz Mumford, co-founder Wash-oe Hands
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the lives and livelihoods of people across the globe and right here in Washoe County, organizations like Moen’s and others now involved with Wash-oe Hands are hoping to find ways to keep meeting their missions of providing support to those in need. In truth, Moen said, that means organizations like his will need a bit of help of their own, too.
“We still have operations that we’re running, and donating to Good Supply Co.a—we’re a 501c3, so it’s all tax deductible—and people can donate,” he said. “And because we’re all volunteer run, every dollar we raise goes directly to paying for the trucks and things that it takes to get people what they need. We don’t have any administrative overhead or anything.”
For Wash-oe Hands founders Mumford and Stiehler, the hope is that the mutual aid group that sprung from their Facebook group can be of assistance to not only local individuals in need, but also the organizations working to help them.
“We’ve partnered with a lot of these groups to bolster them, to help them with the technology we’ve created,” Mumford said. “As much as we can, we want to partner with others who are doing similar things. So there’s other groups that have a niche that would pair well with us, that we can highlight, because we have website technology. … If there are people who need exposure and need help and want to kind of continue to expand the potential of Wash-oe Hands, we don’t want to take away their identities. We want to empower them. So, just letting people know that we’re wanting all hands on deck, and we want to empower everyone in their own way.”