Chicago was hit with a snowstorm over the weekend, and Jahmal Cole’s inbox blew up with requests from elderly neighbors: They needed help shoveling in front of their homes. Some had to get relatives to a hospital. Others had oxygen tanks and were afraid of being trapped.
So Cole sent out a tweet Friday night asking for 10 volunteers to come to his neighborhood, Chatham, on the South Side of Chicago, to shovel the foot of snow that was accumulating. Chatham is a community that’s largely elderly and African American.
When he went to the train station Saturday morning to see whether anyone had showed up to help, he couldn’t believe what he saw. About 120 people stood on the platform, many with shovels, ready to work.
They came from all backgrounds and all parts of the city.
“The people who showed up, they showed that whether people have privilege or don’t have privilege, everyone recognizes a need,” said Cole, a community organizer.
His tweet has been shared by more than 22,000 people and was liked 64,000 times. The majority of the volunteers were from outside Chatham.
One man had taken a bus from Indiana, Cole said. A 70-year-old woman came with her own shovel, ready to dig in.
He sent the volunteers out to dozens of addresses that needed snow cleared. But not everyone came with their own shovel, and Cole quickly realized he needed more. So he ran to a store and bought 25 of them.
Cole, 34, runs a nonprofit organization called My Block My Hood My City, and he said the money for the shovels came from sweatshirts he had sold on his website. The group helps kids on the South Side expand their horizons beyond their neighborhoods. But the snow shoveling wasn’t an official initiative of his organization. He just wanted to help his neighbors.
“When you’re getting emails and calls, you don’t want to let people down,” said Cole, who was born and raised in Chatham. “I wasn’t trying to make a campaign. This was literally me trying to help out my neighbors. We had to organize on the spot.”
He said his request received so much attention that people from across the country started offering money and wanted to buy him a snowblower.
“I’m a really, really small nonprofit. We have two full-time staff, two part-time staff,” he said. “I don’t have anywhere to put a snowblower. I put all these shovels in my own garage. I don’t even have an office space.”
After shoveling dozens of sidewalks and walkways, a job that lasted until about 3 p.m., Cole and the volunteers went out together to have lunch at a neighborhood restaurant.
“I’m proud of our city. We’re getting things done,” Cole said. “People could have been doing anything in the world. They could have been home with families or making snowmen, but they came out to help.”
More people showed up Sunday, a smaller group, and they continued to shovel.
Cole said that he has been shoveling for his neighbors for years and that for the past several years, he has put out a call for volunteers. In the past, he has gotten about 20 helpers. He said he’s not sure what made so many people respond this year.
“It represents an enthusiasm this city hasn’t seen in a while,” he said.