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Building community through gifts and cash-free exchanges

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In March, as the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic washed over the nation, Jennifer Lisiecki of Denver posted on Facebook that she was available to provide child care for friends.

Soon, as grocery stores ran out of important items and businesses shut down, other friends followed suit, adding to her post with what they had to offer one another.

Before long, Lisiecki and her husband Kane started “Help Needed in Denver Metro COVID-19,” a Facebook group dedicated to connecting people in need with those able to help.

Soon the group was seeing 10 to 15 posts an hour, particularly from hungry people seeking food, and young parents desperate to find child-care items that had been wiped out at stores.

“Once we recognized the initial need, it was just go time,” Kane said.

Kane, a Denver shoe store manager, was sent home from work, so he and Jennifer devoted their days to managing the group.

“We would log on at 8 in the morning and stay on until 11 at night, seven days a week,” approving posts and moderating comment threads, Kane said. Among the rules: No requests or offers of cash, in an effort to keep scammers at bay.

“In the first couple weeks it was food and baby items,” Kane said. “Lots of people wanted cleaning supplies, but no one could get them. Diapers were a constant need.”

In one thread, a young mother explained that she, her husband and baby were living in a motel, out of formula and nearly out of diapers. They had burned up most of the gas in their car driving to local grocery stores, only to find bare shelves.

The group lit up with people willing to drive diapers and formula to them. In the span of a couple hours, the young family went from despair to elation and gratitude at the generosity of strangers.

Other stories abounded. A homeless mother who received assistance finding an apartment, then donations of furniture, dishes and food. A homeless man who received a ride to a shelter. Group members gave away everything from guitars to painting canvases.

Today, the group stands just shy of 12,000 members. While it’s not as busy as it was during the height of the shutdowns, it stays lively with gifts of school supplies, furniture and more.

Kane and Jennifer still spend seven days a week managing the group.

“What if there is that mother or father in need and they have no money or car?” Kane said. “What if we aren’t on the page, and the post sits in the queue for hours? Where does that leave them?”

Even beyond the pandemic, Kane said the group filled a niche.

“For most Americans, if you have a box of old clothes, you take it to Goodwill,” he said. “Well, people scraping by don’t have five bucks for a shirt. This opens the door for those really in need. There are service organizations that give items away, but some people are embarrassed. This is connecting people with people. It’s true community.”

The oldest kind of economy

Around the Denver metro area, others have cultivated community through cash-free exchange.

In Littleton, Kathy Powers is the moderator of a thriving local chapter of the Buy Nothing Movement, which focuses on gifts of goods, time or talent, and doesn’t allow for bartering or monetary exchanges.

The key, Powers said, is each chapter is bound to a small geographic area, and discourages “porch pickup,” encouraging neighbors to meet one another.

“It’s not about the stuff,” Powers said. “It’s about the people and the community.”

In Powers’ group, neighbors have donated everything from an extra gallon of milk to a 60-inch flat-screen TVs and entire living room sets. One family had no space to accommodate visiting relatives, so a neighbor offered up a spare bedroom.

“We’re building one of the oldest kinds of economies,” Powers said. “Giving your extra to your neighbors.”

Powers said the group has successfully introduced her to neighbors she now calls friends.

“People are so caught up in their own busy lives, it’s hard to know the neighbors even two or three houses away,” she said. “People have a lot of junk in their homes. It’s a great way to help each other out.”

Bonding over food

Others find food is the key to building community.

Eve Orenstein of Boulder heads Mile High Swappers, a “food swap” group with chapters in Boulder and Denver. The group meets in different locations, with attendees bringing multiple portions of homemade food to trade with one another.

“Bringing people together over food is a natural thing,” Orenstein said. “You’ve got people with all sorts of skills: bakers, gardeners, fermenters — one woman has chickens and rabbits, and she brings eggs and Angora wool.”

While some people bring extravagant items, others bring simple foods. But it’s not about calculating value, Orenstein said.

“It feels good to say here’s this thing I took the time to put together,” she said. “It has value to me and others. Cash value is irrelevant if it’s done with love and care and skill.”

Homemade butter and honey are big hits, she said. Others bring unusual items — one member of the group, an astrophysicist, brings items like fermented black walnuts.

Orenstein admitted she sometimes accepts more than she wants to stay in the spirit.

“I have more jam and pickles than I’ll probably ever eat,” she said. “But it’s about sharing our passions and love with one another.”

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