COVID-19 has taken a destructive toll on Montrealers since the start of the pandemic in March — in more ways than one. And sometimes it makes you wonder, "Where are the feel-good news stories in Quebec?"
With mass business closures and job losses, increased financial woes have impacted everyone in the city — whether non-essential workers struggling to support their families or essential workers facing the virus from the front lines every single day.
Since August, one local Facebook group — aptly named 'Montrealers Helping Montrealers' — has aimed to uplift Montrealers in need, no matter the scale of their hardships.
MTL Blog spoke to the founder of the group, Leah Lasry, to learn more about how Montrealers can get involved in the sort of altruism its 16,000 members have displayed over the last three months.
How did the group form?
Leah Lasry, a financial security advisor and the founder of Montreal Home magazine, told MTL Blog she created the group in August after already engaging in her own philanthropy, which she said was instilled in her from a young age.
"During the summer, we were helping our seniors with air conditioners [and] we were helping our kids with bikes," said Lasry.
"Then I said, 'I feel like we need to create a central place where people can come and help each other. We need to create an army of givers, [...] a place where people feel safe, where there's no politics, where it’s just a place [to give] without judgment.'"
The private Facebook group blew up on social media over the last few months, adding thousands of new members to its repertoire through word-of-mouth.
The group consists of out-of-towners and Montrealers alike, with all its members ready and willing to lend a helping hand.
While some members post requests for spare furniture, holiday decorations and toys, others post photos of the items they're willing to give away so that group members can repurpose them.
Lasry, however, said she only gives away brand new items as part of the group's routine contests and prizes. She told MTL Blog that she's selective in her prize choices, and wants to stimulate Montreal's economy as much as possible by giving away locally-focused items.
"I gave [away] a gift certificate because here was a way to give back to local businesses," Lasry said.
"Don't forget, there's restaurants, [we need to] keep them in business. We don't want a ripple effect [from COVID-19]."
What are some stories of group members helping each other?
According to Lasry and the group's existing posts, members offer any items they may be willing to part with or ask for help finding items they need.
But the group's altruism doesn't always manifest as repurposing or gift-giving. Other group members are eager to offer any services they can provide, whether it's a ride to work or a truck to transport furniture items.
One group member, who posted that she broke her Ray-Ban eyeglasses on November 26, was connected to the owner of a local eyeglass shop through Lasry and promptly received a new pair overnight — all for free.*
Another post shows a food supplier from Le Pirate Vert in Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve giving away hundreds of free produce items to any family in need.
A local activist, gathering items for Montreal's homeless population in what's known as "Tent City" — a sprawl of tents inhabited by the homeless along Rue Notre-Dame — thanked other group members for helping her put together hundreds of sandwiches to dish out, as well as multiple carloads of winter gear and toiletries.
Many Jewish community members are currently offering Hannukah decorations and kosher food to other Jewish families in need.
What does the group have planned for the winter?
Lasry, who said she works 18 hours per day to manage her day job and the group, hosts multiple contests each month with cash prizes and new retail items given to winners drawn at random.
In the first week of the group's creation, Lasry said she gave away $250 to approximately 30 group members in order to encourage new members to join.
She said she doesn't plan on collaborating with local charity organizations on any future contests.
As for how the group's contests are funded, Lasry said she never asks group members to financially contribute to any other member, but she does contribute herself.
"I give back 20% of what I make," Lasry said of her income.
Since the group's inception, she said she's spent over $25,000 helping Montrealers in need.
The group's most recent contest ended on November 26, when Lasry gave away a free Nespresso machine after spinning her virtual contest wheel and landing on one lucky group member.
As for the holidays, Lasry said she has a few upcoming festive contests up her sleeve with help from the group's moderators, like Eli Karls.
"Tell us what your Christmas or Hanukkah wish is, and Santa Leah is going to decide if she can give you what you want under the tree," she said.
"And I'm the elf," added Karls.
*This article has been updated.