It was a couple weeks before much of Central Oregon would shut down and days before toilet paper would become strangely in-demand. But talks of staying at home were looming, and Pastor Morgan Schmidt of First Presbyterian in Bend was brainstorming with other pastors about how to stay connected while staying home.
“We were discussing, how do we stay in touch, stay connected and keep caring for our community in the midst of whatever this was going to turn into,” Schmidt said.
At 35 and a female, Schmidt isn’t your typical pastor—she runs the teen group at First Presbyterian and hosts Tap, a Sunday evening church service with beer and kombucha. So it’s only fitting that Schmidt had a modern idea for staying connected during the pandemic—a Facebook group. It would be a digital bulletin board where people could seek out items and information, and others could reply and provide what was needed.
Within the first six hours after Schmidt created the group, named “Pandemic Partners-Bend,” it had grown to 3,000 members. “All I did was invite my friends, and they invited their friends,” she said. “A lot of it was kind of the timing of people who were panicking a little bit, and facing the unknown.”
The group became wildly popular overnight, with dozens of posts from residents seeking information, food and supplies and others looking to help. Someone nervous to leave the house was seeking lemons and honey. Another was offering up their unused meal kit. There were lots of trips to The Giving Plate, offers to go grocery shopping, and porch pickups and drop-offs of necessities. “The way the community responded was incredibly humbling,” Schmidt said.
The group grew to more than 11,000. Schmidt connected with local nonprofits to help ensure residents were finding the best resources, and brought on about fifteen other people to help moderate the conversations, no small task. A phone helpline was launched to take requests from people who weren’t able to use Facebook.
Soon, Schmidt was helping people in other communities start their own Pandemic Partners groups, with dozens of new chapters launching.
She watched as community members connected with people they may never have otherwise. “Someone from Awbrey Butte was taking propane to someone camping off the grid in China Hat,” Schmidt said. “Neighbors are seeing each other in different ways, as human beings.”
As the impacts of the pandemic lessen, Schmidt isn’t sure what the future of the group holds, but she hopes the kindness practiced will continue in the community. “There will only be a new normal, and we get to have a part in writing that story and deciding what the new normal looks like,” Schmidt said. “I think probably the energy will change, but I think there is always room for kindness.”