When Maria Hadden was sworn in last spring as alderwoman for the 49th ward, she thought the defining issue of her first term would be the erosion of Rogers Park’s beaches. But by early March, she realized that she, like every other elected official in the country, was facing something far worse.

Over a series of conversations with Monica Dillon, who runs Loyola University's Community Nursing Center in Hadden's ward, the alderwoman began to grasp what was coming once COVID-19 reached Chicago. Her constituents — especially the chronically ill and elderly — would be confined to their homes, but would still need food and medicine they likely couldn't afford on their own.

So Hadden talked the problem over with her staff and a few trusted advisors, including longtime Rogers Park activist Jim Ginderske.

“Maria,” Ginderske said, “we need to start a community response team. What do you think about that?” 

By that Saturday, March 14 — seven days before Gov. Pritzker's stay-at-home order took effect — a group of volunteers had organized the inaugural meeting of the Rogers Park Community Response Team (RP-CRT), with the intent of delivering food and medicine to residents unable to get it on their own. It was the only time they would ever meet together in person. (Since then, I've delivered groceries for RP-CRT myself.)

49th Ward alderwoman Maria Hadden Photo: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune

The group was able to come together so quickly thanks in part to an established infrastructure for community activism in Rogers Park. Torrence Gardner, Hadden’s director of economic development, had been involved with Protect RP, a group that organized three years ago to protest ICE raids in the neighborhood. Protect RP had already set up a hotline on Bonjour, which it gave RP-CRT access to, and a communications network on WhatsApp that it used to text information to volunteers. Northside Community Resources, another neighborhood group, let RP-CRT use its GoFundMe page to raise money for groceries and supplies.

The following week, RP-CRT trained its first batch of volunteers in a two-hour Zoom session. They tried to keep the process simple: Residents in need would call the hotline, and the operator on duty would forward their information to one of two WhatsApp groups: supplies or companionship. Then, volunteers would take the requests.

Two more WhatsApp groups quickly formed, one for operators and another for general questions and chitchat. Now, a month after RP-CRT formed, there are 300 volunteers on the WhatsApp channels responding to calls. Between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., the hotline’s operating hours, the messages never seem to stop. Last week, operators took 390 calls and volunteers fulfilled 332 requests for food, medicine, and supplies. Hadden herself has started making calls to check up on senior citizens in the ward.

“It’s been built very organically,” says Jenn Graville Bricker, a member of the leadership team. “We didn’t have everything all thought out in the beginning. We said, let’s start with where we are and what we are now. None of us had any idea what life was going to look like. Everything has been in constant shift.”

In the beginning, there was some confusion over whether groceries would be paid for by a community fund, or by volunteers themselves. But gradually the volunteers sorted themselves into two groups: those willing to shop, those willing to pay, and those willing to do both.

There was also some confusion over what the RP-CRT actually did. In my own time volunteering, the first call I responded to was from a man who told me, when I asked what he wanted, “A 60-inch TV, an iPad, and a new pair of glasses. And a sammich.”

On my second request, for groceries for a family of seven, I realized the extent to which I was part of a longer chain of volunteers. First there was the hotline operator, then the Kinyarwanda-speaking volunteer who called the family back to take down their shopping list. Then there was me, who did the shopping and delivery, and four volunteers who paid me back for the groceries on Venmo, plus another two who wanted to pay but were too late.

So far, Graville Bricker says, about 90 percent of the food and supply deliveries have been covered by volunteers. The group has also raised another $6,400 and applied for grants. 

One volunteer has done 30 deliveries, carting groceries with a bike trailer. Another has made a point of throwing in extra gifts, like ice pops and a budding purple hyacinth. Some volunteers have even made follow-up calls to see how the neighbors they've delivered to are faring.

Local food pantries like A Just Harvest and restaurants, including Smack Dab and the Honeybear Café, have also donated groceries and hot meals. And as the RP-CRT has become more visible, the number of requests has increased, especially on the Spanish-language hotline; RP-CRT has been trying to stagger the seven Spanish-speaking operators’ shifts so they don’t get too exhausted. (There's also a French line, and Kinyarwanda and Swahili lines are scheduled to open soon.) In an attempt to prevent volunteer fatigue, the group plans to start buying groceries in bulk, packaging them at a central location, and distributing them from there.

Different mutual aid networks have formed in Chicago since COVID-19 arrived, but RP-CRT remains one of the most developed. The group has even been lauded by congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose district in New York contains the top five zip codes in the United States impacted by COVID-19 casualties, and who cites RP-CRT an example of what a mutual aid network should look like.

Meanwhile, Hadden has been talking with other aldermen, including Rossana Rodriguez (33rd) and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), about setting up similar teams in their neighborhoods.

Still, she stops short of taking credit. “If I had tried to do this myself,” she says, “I would have failed.”

It’s unclear how long the shelter-in-place order will last, but Hadden says the RP-CRT will continue even after the city opens up again. After all: The end of the pandemic doesn’t mean an end to people who are hungry, lonely, or in need of some help from a neighbor.