October 23, 2021

Cortland Mutual Aid helps local community

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Gabriel Decker-Lee of Cortland sorts through clothing at a Mutual Aid Really Free Market on Jan. 12 at the Court Street entrance at the Cortland Free Library.

Monica Moore of Cortland came out to the Cortland Free Library on a freezing cold Tuesday night, to access free food and clothing from “The Really Free Market” being held there.

It wasn’t a library program. She was accessing Cortland Mutual Aid’s giveaway, held there 5:30 to 7 p.m. the second and fourth Tuesday of every month.

“I love it. These guys are awesome,” said Moore, a mother of three. “It helps me out.”

She needs clothing and food for her family, she said.

There were fresh vegetables, canned goods, diapers, toilet paper and boxes of clothing, including nice hats and snowpants at the offering.

Cortland Mutual Aid is a group of volunteers who have organized to help their neighbors. They meet monthly on zoom to network and use Facebook: Cortland County Mutual Aid and their cortlandmutualaid.weebly.com website to get requests from people in need and find volunteers to fill those needs.

The nonprofit asked the 32 Church St., Cortland, library if it could hold its giveaway in its Court Street vestibule, needing a place inside during the winter to distribute food.

Library officials agreed.

“We have been growing rapidly,” said Christa Chatfield of Cortland, a volunteer. “We probably have a core of 10 people.”

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Monica Moore has three children and attended the Really Free Market on Jan. 12 at the Cortland Free Library. It’s a big help for clothing and food, she said.

But as many as 20 have been stepping up. On Jan. 12, a woman showed up to pick up food she agreed to take out to a person in Homer, who could not get out.

Another woman told organizers she had medical supplies and a child’s pair of snow pants she would make available to those in need.

“Mutual Aid exists to meet the biggest needs of the community – through person to person giving … I know there’s a lot of need, especially in the pandemic. I was looking to … meet that need,” said Chatfield, a biology professor at the college.

The group has food closets positioned at 5 Pierce St., Cortland, and at Cortland Estates Trailer Park, 48 Penguin Drive, that it fills for those in the neighborhood.

People will buy like $30 worth of groceries and stock them on their own, Chatfield said. Also Mutual Aid volunteers stock the closets.

“We always need community help,” Chatfield said. “The whole idea is getting as many people and neighbors involved.”

Chatfield said Mutual Aid is working on setting up three or four more closets at key spots in the county.

“We have plans for community gardens,” she said.

A couple of people on their committee are gardeners and will put that expertise to work. They also hope to teach people how to grow their own food, as well.

“We have a bank account and do fundraising. But a lot of it is meeting needs … the first thing we ask is: ‘what do you need and we try to fill that need,’” said Chatfield.

Organizers meet monthly on Zoom to plan.

It especially wants to help the most vulnerable people — low income, undocumented, elderly, people with disabilities, people of color, those quarantined because of COVID-19.

The Really Free Markets have taken place since May, Chatfield said. “We were outside. It was easier doing them outside.”

Vegetables are donated from Main Street Farms of Cortlandville, Wegmans and food banks in Ithaca, said Chatfield.

Dan Boucher, Chatfield’s husband, delivers food in Ithaca. One food bank is called “Just Because,” he said.

“They serve a number of food give away things,” he said. “There’s another place called Nu Mas Lagrimas, “No More Tears.” It’s a child oriented food bank and service, he said.

Boucher, who delivers food for a living, corrals some of the food.

Mutual Aid is part of a movement of groups that exist across the United States and have become very active keeping people fed, especially in the pandemic.

Mutual Aid Tompkins has a website to collect needs from people and match the person with volunteers, who work out the details from there.

They too, have food closets and also neighborhood stewards who survey a specific area and check on their neighbors.

“They are all over the place,” said Chatfield, “and it only takes some one reaching out to a neighbor.

Cortland Mutual Aid’s Facebook pages are seen by 300 to 800 people and it advertises by flyers stapled to poles and word of mouth.

“My wife got involved first,” said Boucher. “It’s going really well.” It is also working on a winter clothing collection and delivery.

Gabriel “BookChin” Decker-Lee of Cortland is a member of mutual aid and was helping people inside the library corridor as they sorted through items. Only a few people, masked, could come in at a time.

“A lot of us are here for political reasons. A lot of it is to help Cortland.”

He said he’s against an entrenched system that pits one group of people against another. People can work with each other to get what they need, he said.

In fact, the name mutual aid comes from 19th century anarchist Peter Kropotkin. The fellow studied animals in the Siberian wilderness. He thought they would be rivals for resources. Instead, he saw them working together for survival. He wrote: “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution” in 1902 outlining his theory according to a Sept. 30 piece in “The Cut” by Amanda Arnold.

“We did a Christmas thing,” said Decker-Lee. “We didn’t plan on it.

One or two people said they needed Christmas presents for their kids.”

The word got around and Mutual Aid ended up getting Christmas presents for like 75 kids. It was exciting, he said.

“We serve everyone in Cortland County area.”