The early days of the pandemic were chaotic, Maura Ferguson recalls. Businesses shut down first. Schools followed shortly after. Much about the novel coronavirus was still unknown. Around Grand Forks, residents wondered whether their lives would return to normal in two weeks, two months or longer.
More than anything, in those first few days, Ferguson remembers the fear. But Ferguson, a social worker and activist, looked to a favorite quote by Fred Rogers for guidance: In times of disaster, look for the helpers.
That's the purpose of the Facebook group GFK Community Support COVID-19, she said: to connect members of the community who wanted to help with members who needed it.
"Honestly, people find ways to help. People want to help," said Fayme Stringer Henry, one of the moderators of the group. "Being able to say, 'you know what, I have two cans of chicken gumbo soup, I know what it's like, here you go.' It's nice to see that in the comments versus the inflammatory things. ... It's nice to see people actually participating together to create some form of a little free pantry online."
The original founder of the group, Holly Undlin Weismantel, has since moved away from Grand Forks. But a dedicated four-person team of moderators has continued to oversee the group, now about 9,000 members strong. For those members, GFK Community Support COVID-19 has become a go-to for Grand Forks community members -- an official unofficial source of information and resources.
The moderators -- Ferguson, Henry, Rachel Goebel and Eric Johnson -- all work in health care or social work. But they emphasized that, in moderating the group, they're acting in a personal capacity rather than a professional one. They haven't received or sought compensation for their work -- instead, they felt called to do it.
Goebel used to volunteer in local nursing homes before volunteer programs in those facilities were suspended to protect the residents. She said the group has given her a way to continue acting in service to the community.
"When visitation closed down and I found out the elderly were at such increased risks and deaths, I needed there to be a way I could help even indirectly," she said. "Stepping into this role really gave me a way that I could help our community and continue to help those elders and continue to keep our community involved with all aspects of people who live here."
The group has become a bright spot in the pandemic, the four moderators agree. They've seen members come together daily to help parents struggling with rent to pay for baby supplies, to distribute free, homemade masks and to pool resources or identify newly stocked grocery stores during supply shortages. The group has also come to be an informal business directory, where local shops can post specials, hours and takeout menus.
Shortly after the group began gaining popularity, organizations, such as Altru Health System, Grand Forks Public Health and the city of Grand Forks, began approaching the group to post important information about the virus, testing events and vaccines. Local community and public health leaders also began reaching out to the moderators to ask what concerns and questions they were seeing among Grand Forks residents.
"We kind of had an idea of the pulse of what the community was thinking," Ferguson said.
The moderators didn't necessarily expect the group to grow into what it's become -- but they say continuing to facilitate a space for Grand Forks' helpers to connect has been a worthwhile endeavor.
Much of the day-to-day work for the moderators includes approving every post that appears on the page. The team keeps a group chat open on Facebook most of the day, and they frequently have discussions and hold votes about whether or not to allow a post.
In the spirit of the group's original intention, members prioritize calls for help and connecting people with resources. In an effort to prevent the spread of misinformation, they allow information about public health to be posted only by primary sources, such as Grand Forks Public Health, the city of Grand Forks or the North Dakota Department of Health.
Ultimately, the goal is to distribute accurate, factual information to the public so Grand Forks residents can make educated decisions for themselves during the pandemic. They resist trying to influence anyone's decisions beyond that, Johnson said.
"It's really been good for us to have a social media platform where people can help each other," he said. "That's really what we’ve come to exist for, is for people to be helpers. And that’s working -- I think we hear so many negative things about social media, and not to overstate our importance, but I think our group is one of the upsides of how social media can work, because people do want to help."