Simone Gordon doesn't have to worry about a byzantine legislative process to get Covid-19 relief to families she sees struggling. She has Facebook and Instagram.
Since March 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the country, Gordon, a single mother from New Jersey, has turned the social media groups she once relied on for help herself into a multistate operation that targets needs large and small. She has marshaled hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations and dozens of volunteers to fill in the gaps of Covid-19 government assistance while granting "wish lists" for holidays and paying off tuition bills.
And for that, she earned the nickname she used for her new nonprofit: "the Black Fairy Godmother."
"From that point on, my life has been different," she said. "It means a lot, because a lot of families, especially in the Southern states, find it much harder getting assistance."
She added, "I'm teaching people how to survive."
Paying it forward
After she lost her job at a bank in 2017, Gordon scrambled to keep up with bills and find food, clothes and other resources for her newborn son, who was later diagnosed with nonverbal autism.
Gordon tried applying for government benefits, such as food stamps and housing assistance, but, she said, she felt like she was standing on a precipice that was cracking beneath her.
"I went out to different nonprofits and social services agencies to get him the help that he needed, and I just kept getting caught up in a jam," she said. "People said: 'Well, go to this website. It's right there. You can just apply.' It's not that easy. It takes days, it takes a week, and by that time a person wants to give up."
So she did what millions of others have done over the years seeking kinship and emergency aid — she turned to social media.
She found an established private group on Facebook for low-income mothers, which helped her get supplies for her son. She realized that there were more women like her who sometimes needed an extra hand to make ends meet. She began making Facebook groups aimed at creating a network largely of women of color, including those who are, like her, the primary caregivers for disabled loved ones.
By 2018, the Facebook groups she started were raising thousands of dollars, and she relied on 12 volunteers to help distribute money and supplies. By 2019, she was on Instagram.
Then, the pandemic created an explosion of need.
Gordon said that for many families, the uncertainty — and the bills — grew as they waited for government assistance.
"I had to go to social media and ask followers to mail baby formula, to collect toilet paper, to send masks and help do grocery runs for senior citizens ... and also individuals with disabilities," she said.
Her Instagram account grew from 500 followers to 13,000 within months; she had 43,000 as of May. Her following expanded even more with the help of "Eat Pray Love" author Elizabeth Gilbert, who promoted her work.
Stories from all over the country poured in, mostly from single Black and Latino mothers asking for her help. Gordon said she raised $150,000 within the first week in March last year as lockdowns began. Overall, she said, her Instagram efforts have raised over $250,000, helped house 121 families facing eviction in temporary housing, fulfilled 324 families' Christmas wish lists and 120 Mother's Day wish lists, and awarded 11 scholarships to help single women of color pursue their educational goals.
Gordon said that she shares receipts with donors to show where exactly the money went and that she requires documentation of hardship, such as eviction notices or bills. She said she pays landlords or sends groceries directly through an online service.
Congress has passed multiple Covid-19 relief bills and imposed eviction moratoriums, and states have passed their own relief measures, such as rental assistance — yet experts have noted that there are those who still slip through the cracks.
A recent study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank, suggests that millions of Americans still find it hard to pay rent, buy food and get basic necessities.
The study also found that 11 percent of adults in households with children were likely to say they didn't have enough to eat as of May, compared to 7 percent for households without children. An estimated 10.9 million adults living in rental housing — 15 percent of all adult renters — were also behind on their payments, according to the study.
Waving her wand across America
Gordon has parlayed her Instagram account into a registered nonprofit — The Black Fairy Godmother Foundation — with a paid staff and two volunteers in every state. People can apply for help through a form on the website, which requires applicants to submit various forms of documentation.
"We help you with emergency food. We help you with emergency [electricity bills]. But the next step is employment or education, because you can't go back to being broke after we assist you," she said.
She added, "The reason why I'm doing the work that I do for the marginalized community is that I went through it."
Shirnique Murray, 30, a single mother in Florida, said she stumbled across Gordon's Instagram account in May 2020 at a time of immediate need.
She had to quit her job at a merchandising company because of the lack of child care due to school closings. The occasional work she found wasn't enough to pay the bills and feed her family. She said that within 48 hours of her having reached out to Gordon on Instagram, there were groceries at her house. But that wasn't the end of the help. Murray said she always wanted to be a nurse. Gordon helped pay for her certified nursing assistant examination course, which Murray completed this month, and the certification exam.
"When she did it, she did it right then and there," Murray said. "I was grateful and thankful and excited."
Gordon said doing the work has been fulfilling but draining, contributing to a "breakdown" at one point over the last year. Requests for help were pouring in, and she was struggling to manage a larger volunteer network. She was also caring for her autistic son, now 11, and taking classes to become a nurse — all from home while the country was largely in lockdown.
"I had a breakdown because everything was hitting me. My son didn't understand why he couldn't go outside. I was confined in a house, and people were just emailing and emailing. And my team members have actual jobs, and they were still volunteers. And some of the followers who were volunteers just didn't understand, and they were getting overwhelmed. And I felt like I was failing the people," she said.
"But then when I went to sleep, I shut everything down. I went to sleep and I woke up the next day. I just gathered my tears and I said, 'Well, what would our ancestors do in a situation like this?' And that's how I got the strength to be 24/7 nonstop during a pandemic."
Storm Rice, 37, a mother in Texas, met Gordon in a Facebook group for people caring for disabled family members. Rice's husband at the time had a brain aneurysm in 2013, and she became his caregiver while working to support their daughter. Gordon helped Rice get some assistance for bills.
But things got worse during the pandemic. Rice's job at a restaurant vanished when businesses were forced to shut down or limit their capacity, and various federal and state virus-related mandates created confusion about when the work would come back. Rice said that she applied for food stamps but that the process was cumbersome and, ultimately, not enough.
"There's been plenty of times where all the work in the world wasn't enough to pay the bills, and she always fed us," Rice said of Gordon. "Trying to prepare for hunger is not what the system is made for. It's made for you to already be hungry — Simone helps people at all stages."