Food, Clothing, Shelter: These NYC Runners Are Helping Their Neighbors Survive

Before the pandemic, New York runner Jeggi Elinzano (above, right) put in weekend miles preparing for the Chicago Marathon and a long-distance adventure he was planning with friends on the Pacific Crest Trail.

These days, he’s running groceries—tucked into a backpack and an over-the-shoulder bag—to his neighbors’ apartments in South Brooklyn.

In the past few months, he and other longtime members of the NYC running community—including Aisha Qamar, Caitlin Phillips, and Jennifer Pagan—have channeled their athletic dedication toward a different purpose: meeting the basic needs of their neighbors.

They’re dedicated volunteers with South Brooklyn Mutual Aid, a group supporting area residents with food and other necessities. As the city locked down, the runners spent their free time connecting low-income families with everything from diapers to social services; on weekends, they head to a warehouse on the shores of New York Harbor to pack food boxes for hundreds.

The COVID pandemic and its economic fallout have created urgent need across the country—and South Brooklyn is no exception. Neighborhoods like Sunset Park, Borough Park, and Bay Ridge are among the borough’s most diverse, and home to many immigrants. Residents face challenges that include job loss, hefty medical and funeral bills from COVID, and threats of eviction.

Whitney Hu, a longtime organizer in the area and a candidate for city council, launched South Brooklyn Mutual Aid in March to help address them. Qamar saw tweets about the effort and reached out right away to get involved.

Elinzano lives in Sunset Park and learned about the group from Qamar, whom he’d met years ago in the running crew Black Roses. He’d already been looking in on his neighbors, and mutual aid’s socialist roots appealed to him. “It’s inherently benevolent, but it’s not about charity,” he said. “It’s about us doing what we have to do to look after our community when our community is being left behind.”

south brooklyn mutual aid

Jennifer Pagan, a dedicated runner, volunteers Fridays and Saturdays with South Brooklyn Mutual Aid.

Courtesy of Aisha Qamar

The group started by fielding and fulfilling requests individually, via color-coded Google docs. “It was that person-to-person sort of coordination—this person said they could deliver groceries to a neighbor, so let’s see if they’re able to do that today for this particular person,” Qamar said.

She coordinated requests as volunteers like Elinzano fulfilled them, on foot or sometimes by skateboard. At first, the matches were relatively easy to make. “I just remember thinking, Okay, this is manageable,” Qamar said. But soon, word began to spread. “We were just bombarded. I remember feeling we’re always going to be playing catch-up.”

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A new normal

The circumstances served as a drastic contrast to pre-pandemic life, said Caitlin Phillips, who also joined South Brooklyn Mutual Aid in March. Phillips ran 2:42:16 at the Olympic Marathon Trials in February, her second Trials appearance. Qamar was supposed to run the Tokyo Marathon until officials restricted it to elites only. She instead ran L.A. on March 8, finishing in 3:09:16.

Only a couple of weeks later, those finish lines felt worlds away. Qamar and Phillips texted each other at night, overwhelmed at the desperation around them. “When you live in New York and you’re working a full-time job 50 hours a week and training for a marathon, you could be aware of the issues, but it doesn’t allow you a lot of time to really see it within your own community,” Phillips said.

“It’s not that I wasn’t aware of racial injustice or economic injustice prior to this, but this really cracked it open in a way that feels really disheartening. I would have moments of feeling nihilistic, wondering, How are we going to sustain this?

Running failed to offer the release it once had. Qamar kept up a daily routine, usually heading out late at night. “If I was running once a day, at least I could demarcate that a day had passed,” she said. But the sport ultimately seemed somewhat of a luxury—one not everyone had the resources to enjoy. “Quite honestly, it felt really bad.”

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Even as the virus and its impact spread, however, acts of kindness also began to compound. Phillips recalls taking groceries to families who would then hand her bagsful of baby clothes to redistribute. Residents with otherwise bare pantries shared their newly acquired vegetables with neighbors across the hall. Bonds formed and deepened between the mutual aid coordinators. While the problems ran deep, they realized, no one had to solve them alone.

Expanding their reach

On April 23—Qamar recalls the date, because she was fasting for the first day of Ramadan—the group shifted to a mass distribution model. Calls and texts for individual help still rolled in. But in addition, Hu began sourcing food at wholesale prices. The organization took over increasingly large spaces to assemble boxes and bags of groceries for delivery every weekend.

Now, they feed 400 to 500 families weekly. Throughout the week, Phillips squeezes outreach calls to households on the group’s list—confirming their need for a delivery—between evening conference calls for her job as executive director of art production at a cosmetics company. Qamar, who works in healthcare technology, co-coordinates the process of matching deliveries with available drivers, operations that have been streamlined using maps and collaborative software.

Elinzano—whose day job is retail in Manhattan—helps keep things organized at the mass distribution center, currently located on the seventh floor of the Brooklyn Army Terminal. Jennifer Pagan joined up in April, after losing her job as an art director, and began volunteering every Friday and Saturday.

Fridays involve setting up boxes—Pagan has become a whiz with a tape machine—and receiving food deliveries. On Saturdays, the runners and other volunteers load boxes with fruits, vegetables, eggs, and other whole, healthy foods.

Larger families get an additional bag, and others receive items like diapers and wipes. “Anything you need, we’ll find and get it to you,” Pagan said. The fully loaded boxes go into volunteers’ cars—including Phillips’s—and out for delivery.

“At this point, I know that I will not turn away. I know that’s true for everyone in this group.”

The boxes also include masks and handouts with information about the group’s other resources. For instance, another arm, called 311-4-All, connects residents to assistance for rent or social service programs regardless of factors like age or documentation status.

Sweating for equity

As they work side by side, volunteers have created camaraderie not unlike that of a training group. “We jokingly have called Saturdays the South Brooklyn Mutual Aid workout,” Pagan said. “Whitney even says, ‘If you want a modification—if you’re not feeling so strong today—start in the beginning of the line, because the boxes are lighter. They get heavier as you go.”

It’s a natural fit for the athletes. “We’re so used to giving of ourselves physically,” said Pagan, who was registered for the New York City Marathon before it was canceled. “Usually in running, though, it’s mostly for your own personal interests and gains.”

The whole operation costs an estimated $10,000 to $15,000 weekly. From the beginning, funding came from media coverage and social media outreach.

As it became clear that what started as a short-term fix would require more of a marathon effort, money ran short. South Brooklyn Mutual Aid had to put some operations—including the grocery deliveries—on pause for a couple of weeks in late July.

A big push for donations, along with ongoing process improvements to more efficiently use them, meant the boxes and other efforts resumed in early August. Meanwhile, the group is focusing on building a more sustainable fundraising component, tapping into volunteers with experience in campaigns and nonprofits.

It’s that combination of leveraging existing expertise and learning on the fly—about everything from chicken prices to logistics to the legal system—that has helped South Brooklyn Mutual Aid continue to evolve and expand its impact, Qamar said.

Moving toward the future

Even as the city continues to reopen, problems persist. Ideally, elected officials and other leaders would provide social safety nets. South Brooklyn Mutual Aid could then fill less urgent needs, such as community gardens and kids’ sports programs, Phillips said.

But as long as neighbors are left behind, the organization—and the runners—will step in to fill the gaps. “Before, in some ways, I had the privilege of turning away,” Qamar said. “At this point in my life, I know that I will not turn away. I know that’s true for everyone in this group. You can’t ignore these problems anymore, and we’re in it for the long haul to make things better.”

In serving their neighbors, the runners have also found their miles infused with new meaning. Qamar finds her grounding in running the three hilly miles from her home to the mass distribution center and back, and to transport herself to protests that began after the killing of George Floyd. “Running didn’t start to feel good again until it had a purpose,” she said.

For Elinzano, making ground deliveries transformed his approach to the sport. Instead of speed for its own sake, he now syncs his skills and talents with the cadence of his beliefs. “[Running] has been a vehicle for further engagement, which is new, because usually it’s been a way to escape,” he said. “Mutual aid and running—they’re acts of freedom.”

Cindy Kuzma
Contributing Writer
Cindy is a freelance health and fitness writer, author, and podcaster who’s contributed regularly to Runner’s World since 2013.

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