As COVID-19 Spread, This Professor Found a Way to Help Her Community
As the coronavirus crisis came to a head in mid-March, Leah Wood, an associate professor in the School of Education, felt herself being consumed by emotions that have become so familiar in the face of the pandemic: worry, uncertainty and helplessness.
“It was a lot, and I felt myself get really overwhelmed,” Wood said, adding that on top of her work, she was trying to keep up with the rapidly-developing news, as well as alerts from Cal Poly and her children’s schools.
She saw people in hard-hit areas like New York asking on Twitter if they could help vulnerable neighbors in need of food or medicine.
“It stood out to me as one of the first really kind and tangible gestures coming from a person,” Wood said. “It wasn’t coming from the CDC, or another organization, it was just a simple, neighbor-to-neighbor action that warmed my heart and felt like a great way we could be treating each other.”
Inspired by what she saw, Wood looked online to see if any similar community efforts had sprung up in San Luis Obispo. She found some on Nextdoor groups, but thought that a platform like Facebook would have more reach.
On March 14, Wood created a Facebook group, named it HelpSLO, and invited a few dozen of her Facebook friends.
The group exploded: the Facebook group currently has more than 6,000 members, and sister groups such as HelpPaso and HelpFiveCities have sprung up to serve other parts of San Luis Obispo County. Wood has also started a website, helpslo.com, where people can see all of the groups and reach out directly if they want to get involved.
The response to the group was rapid, and posts poured in from people with urgent needs.
“I’ve never been involved in organizing anything, outside of the work I do at Cal Poly,” Wood said. “I reached out to people early on to become moderators and nail down group guidelines. We have a huge responsibility to help people get the help they need.”
Group members have stepped up to help those at risk, even organizing bike deliveries to get goods and services to people in need, Wood said.
But the group has helped in other ways, too: Wood recalled that a mother posted recently about needing to find Children’s Motrin or Tylenol for her sick, immunocompromised child.
“All the stores were out of Children’s Motrin and Tylenol because people were panic-buying in response to the pandemic,” Wood said. “Within an hour, there were 30 or 40 comments on her post from people offering to bring her the medicine she needed. That was amazing.”
Wood said she has also coordinated with senior citizens who were volunteers before the pandemic hit to find younger, less at-risk people to fill volunteer gaps at community organizations.
“We’ve been able to fill some critical holes that I hadn’t even thought about,” Wood said. The group has also helped Wood’s mother, who is running the HelpSLO Twitter account, by taking her own mind off of the pandemic.
“In a time when we feel hopeless, having a way to help other people and affect change for good is so needed, and that’s not lost on me,” Wood said.
Because of the group’s rapid growth, and because Wood needs time to focus on her job and family, she plans to hand off some responsibilities, such as coordinating and connecting volunteers, to local organizers. She said she will still be involved as a moderator and administrator for the Facebook group.
“I think the group is giving us, even those who are just there to scroll through, a sense of something good and having that right now feels important,” Wood said. “I would feel a little more lost and a little more dark if I didn’t have this to turn to and see all the ways we are doing good in our community right now.”