How a Duke Student Masterminded a Growing Coronavirus Aid Group

Duke University students, forced off campus by coronavirus, spearheaded a fast-growing pandemic aid group. (Image via Shutterstock)

By Max Millington

August 25, 2020

Catherine McMillian, a junior at Duke, said she saw a need for food, supplies and information at her home in Charlotte. So she did something about it. 

When the coronavirus pandemic ended the last few weeks of the 2019-2020 school year prematurely, a group of North Carolina college students turned a Facebook support group into a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization designed to support those who have been affected by COVID-19. 

Catherine McMillian, a junior at Duke, saw a need when she was forced to return home to Charlotte after spring break. 

“Coming back home, I realized that it was really important for me to invest in my community and to do what I could to support building community during this time,” said McMillian. “I was, in part, inspired by Duke students who established a mutual aid network for students who were kicked off campus and didn’t have a safety net that was insured by the administration.”

Once McMillian decided to start a mutual aid of her own, she contacted her former high school classmate Joey Chong, a junior at Dartmouth College, and started a Facebook group. “In the first day it grew to over 100 people and over the first week, got into the several hundreds,” McMillian told Cardinal & Pine. Group membership now stands at 620. 

The group began as a community support structure for information regarding testing, masks, and medical and practical resources. Soon after, the students created a website with organized information about everything from food, supplies, transportation, and even how to wear a protective mask. 

The organization, called COVID-19 Greater Charlotte Mutual Aid (COVID-GCA for short), is completely staffed by college student interns and volunteers. COVID-GCA has a grocery delivery program and has worked to provide PPE to small business owners of color. The group has held webinars with public health officials and local leaders like Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris and county Commissioner Susan B. Harden. 

One Charlotte woman, Moriah Ferguson, recalled how she benefited from the group’s grocery delivery service. “Greater Charlotte Mutual Aid was referred to me by a close friend of mine,” Ferguson said. “I contacted them and by the end of the next day about three volunteers dropped off groceries, which helped me pay my rent and other bills to stay afloat.” 

Ariana Perez, an intern and senior at Queens University of Charlotte, assisted in creating educational initiatives for low-income K-12 students in Charlotte. She recalls her thoughts while sitting at home early in the pandemic. “I want to get into social work and social workers take action. We help people in need, people who are vulnerable, who may not know all the resources that are out there for them,” said Perez. 

As Cardinal & Pine reported, Charlotteans displaced by coronavirus’ economic fallout are at risk of losing shelter. Early this month, a Charlotte landlord sued to shut down an encampment for the homeless called “Tent City.” 

Mutual aid groups like COVID-GCA help bridge the gap that keeps less privileged communities from getting assistance.

“We’re really looking at basic necessities and how we’re connecting the basic necessities to what the government is providing, and how there are so many barriers between people and government,” said Chong. 

McMillian and Chong say they are planning to continue the work this fall as they attend college virtually, but stress that COVID19-GCA isn’t dependent on their leadership. 

“We really believe that the very essence of what mutual aid is requires a community to come together,” said Chong. “We’re facilitators in conducting the mutual aid work, but we’re not necessary to the heart and to the core of what mutual aid really is.”


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