In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the residents of Bradford sprang into action early. A busy Bradford Facebook group is connecting volunteer helpers with those in need.
Bradford has relatively few cases of COVID-19. As of Tuesday, McKean County had just five cases, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. But Chelsea Place of Bradford knew a lockdown would create a need for other kinds of help. She is a founder of the Facebook group called “Helping Bradford, PA During Coronavirus.”
“When all of this started to happen and they closed down the schools, I was just very concerned," Place said. “Knowing the poverty rate in McKean County – we’re the fourth-highest county by poverty rate – and how many kids qualify for free lunch and everything – I was just really concerned that people in the community would be cash-strapped and struggling to feed their families during this time.”
Place started with a post on her own Facebook page, offering to buy some groceries for people in need.
“And then one of my friends, Marty Wilder, had made a comment suggesting that maybe we could make this into a Facebook group,” Place said.
They did. And the “Helping Bradford” Facebook group caught on fast.
“I never thought, in my wildest dreams, it would grow to the size that it is today,” Place said. "And it grew like overnight. We had 500 members in like a day. It was crazy how quickly things really developed.”
The Facebook group now has over 1,500 members, and hundreds of comments each day. Posts on the page range from updates from Bradford Regional Medical Center, to food drive information, to posts about organizing volunteers to make and deliver face masks.
“We’ve been really active on making sure that all of the businesses that are still open in town have masks for their employees,” Place said. “And we’re also trying to get masks to the different hospitals and medical facilities, as well as the police station and firefighters in the region.”
One of the mask-makers is Donnia Denig of Bradford, a wholistic health practitioner and massage therapist. She said she’d been making masks since the end of March, for some health care workers she knows, as well as friends and family.
"And then I got involved in the Facebook group," Denig said. "And people are texting me and emailing me and calling me all day long: 'Can I get four? Can I get three? My parents need a couple.'"
Denig said the Facebook group’s mask team is prolific.
“There’s about 17, maybe 20 of us,” she said. “I myself to date have made probably about 500.”
Denig’s wholistic health practice is closed now, so she is unemployed. Her own future is uncertain, yet she’s pouring herself into the mask project to help take care of others.
“Every time I make a mask, I think of the person that might be getting it,” Denig said. “It gives me some sort of hope that I’m able to contribute, even now, when I can’t contribute what I used to. So it helps me get through. But it’s tough.”
Yolanda Chiodo of Bradford joined the mask-making team after a good friend of hers, who’s a medical worker, asked for a favor.
“She was very upset,” Chiodo said. “She’s like, you know, 'I was wondering if you can help me.' And I was like, 'Sure, you know, I’ll do anything for you. What do you need?'”
She needed Chiodo to sew her hundreds of masks.
“And I kind of chuckled, and I’m like, 'You’re kidding, right?'”
Chiodo didn’t know how to sew. But she wasn’t about to disappoint her friend. She later made a video, posted on the Bradford Facebook page where she talked about the exchange.
“I remember saying to her, 'Well, jeez, I can’t sew,'” Chiodo says in her Facebook video. “When I was 13 years old in home economics I sewed my grandmother’s pants legs together. So I don’t know if you want me sewing.”
But she went on YouTube and found some sewing videos. Someone donated a sewing machine to her, and she joined the mask-makers.
“We sit in front of our sewing machines anywhere from 10 to 12 hours a day, 7 days a week,” Chiodo said. “Some of us have slept at our sewing machines.”
“This is all just so organic,” Carolyn Newhouse said. “That’s what I think is very powerful about this.”
Newhouse is executive director of Bradford Area Alliance, a group of local organizations and businesses that works on community and economic development. She says the help provided by Bradford’s Facebook group goes well beyond making masks.
“People were posting like, ‘Hey, I could use some help with food.' We noticed we had a lot of food insecurity. And so we had a food drive,” Newhouse said.
Newhouse said they had volunteers, including the Bradford Area Lions Club, storing, packing and delivering the food, all while paying attention to social distancing. But not everyone wants to make a public request for food.
So the group decided to establish the Bradford Cares Hotline “to assist those affected by coronavirus in a very confidential way,” Newhouse said. “And we had volunteers manning that hotline.”
And, Newhouse says, the hotline can also be a resource for information, like how to file for unemployment.
The hotline and the Facebook page have brought Bradford area residents all kinds of assistance, and a sense of community. Chelsea Place, the founder of the Helping Bradford Facebook page, said seeing that community spirit keeps her grounded.
“I think you can get so caught up in all of the negative, in all of the craziness that’s going on,” Place said. “And at the end of the day, when I can look and see, you know how much good we’ve done, it really helps me stay positive and helps me have a better outlook on humanity."
The Bradford Cares Hotline is 814-366-5901. Requests for assistance are kept confidential.
Special thanks to Donnia Denig and Yolanda Ciodo for supplying photos and Donnia’s actual sewing machine sound to help WPSU report this story remotely.