In the midst of social distancing, social media is trying to fill the void for human interaction in Southwest Michigan.
In the past week, a handful of Facebook groups have popped up online in an attempt to give tips and spread helpful information in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ayla Batton-Wyman launched a Facebook group called SWMI Mutual Aid with the purpose of pooling resources for friends, neighbors and those in need of help during the pandemic.
The group was designed to network with and connect those who are willing to offer goods, services and knowledge. While this group is primarily based in Southwest Michigan, residents living in Northwest Indiana are welcome to join.
Members have shared information on food distribution locations, links to unemployment assistance, meal threads, offerings of extra food and job postings.
“The main intention was to connect those who need help with those who can offer help,” said Batton-Wyman, who is among four moderators for the group. “That was my primary goal.”
About a week ago, Batton-Wyman was added to a Kalamazoo Mutual Aid group and chose to create a local page for this region.
The group was created on Saturday and has since surpassed 1,200 members.
“I’m not surprised by the amount of participation,” Batton-Wyman said. “It’s gratifying to see how strong this community is.”
The Facebook group has since produced a master list of resources from the area, as well as those seeking services.
“We’ve had people reach out to us seeking specific items in the grocery store. I had one person specifically looking for alcohol wipes that are used for diabetic insulin testing,” Batton-Wyman said. “I made a post on their behalf and we had 15 group members respond, offering to get their stock of alcohol wipes to her.”
Batton-Wyman said there have been a lot more people offering help as opposed to asking for help. However, she said it’s been encouraging to see the abundance of willing volunteers.
Job opportunities and unemployment resources have also been a constant draw on the group’s page.
The group’s content isn’t always doom and gloom. Occasionally there will be an inspirational quote or a reference to a mobile app on meditation.
Batton-Wyman’s favorite post was in reference to an individual who learned the Cracker Barrel in Stevensville would close for the time being, and then returned with $100 for each employee.
“To me that demonstrated how much people want to help other people and how happy people are when they’re helping,” she said.
While it’s uncertain how long people are expected to stay out of the public, Batton-Wyman hopes the group will continue to help others once the pandemic is under control.
“I want it to keep going indefinitely,” she said. “I have hopes of potentially turning it into a nonprofit. I would love for it to be a community resource in general. I look forward to facilitate a movement of services for other people.”
Buy Local Berrien! is another Facebook group that was created shortly before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shut down access to restaurants and bars. It serves as a platform to share which businesses have remained open amid state-mandated restrictions.
The group has since collected nearly 4,000 members in the past week. The page sees a couple hundred posts a day.
“It has grown exponentially,” said Arthur Havlicek, president and CEO for Southwest Michigan Regional Chamber, who also serves as administrator for that group. “The engagement has been through the roof. We’re talking hundreds of shares, thousands of viewers and hundreds of posts per day.”
Havlicek said he sees the page continuing past the pandemic, as businesses are being promoted throughout the tri-county area.
“We really want to stress the idea of buying local,” he said. “It’s been a great way to push that message in supporting each other.”
Gillian Conrad, communications manager for the Berrien County Health Department, said social media has been one of the department’s most valuable tools.
The Health Department’s following on social media has increased dramatically since the public began to look for proper precautions to the coronavirus.
“In this age of rapid-fire news and people relying on technology for information, we are pushing out news as we are receiving it from the state and the CDC,” Conrad said. “We hope people come to us to find fact-based information, rather than seeking out news from their neighbor down the street who shares conspiracy theories on their Facebook page.”
Conrad said they have been encouraging the public to follow the Health Department’s Facebook page for “hyper-local” updates.
“There’s a crazy amount of misinformation out there,” she said. “We can’t correct it all, but we can be a source of credible information for our community members when they want the facts.”