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Published January 22, 2014, 02:34 PM

Help, a click away: Websites facilitate tangible help in time of need

FARGO – With our heads buried in a mobile device, oblivious to the living, breathing human being right next to us, it’s easy to say the Internet is isolating us.

By: Sherri Richards, INFORUM

FARGO – With our heads buried in a mobile device, oblivious to the living, breathing human being right next to us, it’s easy to say the Internet is isolating us.

As a mom raising kids in a time of cyber-bullying and other online ills, Tiffani Brantner, of West Fargo, has thought of the Internet: “Nothing good can come from it.”

But it was there that she found a website to help her sister at a time she needed a boost.

Brantner used TakeThemAMeal.com to coordinate meal delivery for her sister and brother-in-law after the birth of twins. The couple also had an 18-month-old daughter.

TakeThemAMeal.com, which allows users to create a meal schedule and send invitations, is an example of websites that are designed to facilitate tangible help in a time of need, often among people who live in the same community.

Some sites organize volunteers. Some raise funds. Others connect people or organizations in need with the person or group that that can provide it.

At first, Brantner hesitated to arrange meal delivery, not knowing the line between “what is being helpful and what is crossing boundaries of privacy,” she says.

Brantner also wasn’t keen on calling relatives and potentially putting them on the spot. She didn’t know all her sister’s friends who might want to help.

TakeThemAMeal.com allowed her to set up a calendar and spread the word through Facebook or email in a no-pressure way.

“If they felt the need or want to be helpful, then there it is,” Brantner says. “I would definitely do it again in a heartbeat.”

In some ways it seems odd that we turn to the World Wide Web to arrange bringing a hotdish to our neighbor, but not when we consider it through the lens of emerging communication tools, says Andrew Mara, associate professor of English at North Dakota State University.

“We’ve always used tools that maybe cross distances to figure out who’s next door to us,” says Mara, who studies writing and new media.

A website can aggregate a community’s needs and put them directly in front of us, Mara says. It also removes some of the risk and vulnerability of offering to help.

“It creates structure so you can see the boundaries,” he says.

Mara says it frustrates him to read “panic stories” related to Internet use – cyber-stalking, kidnappings and attacks – because “also people are doing amazing stuff.”

The Internet is a place where “seemingly the profane stuff and the sacred stuff come together,” Mara says.

Sometimes, it happens in the same place.

Take, for example, theCHIVE.com, a photo-entertainment site flush with half-naked women. It also advocates random acts of kindness and raises money for select causes in need of awareness and financial help through its 501c3, Chive Charities. The website describes the Chive Nation as “easily the most generous community on the web today.”

Mara says people don’t want to be limited to what they do where on the Web. He’s fascinated by the “random corners where people show up.” And he’s excited by the utopian turn the Web has taken to crowd-funding and volunteer mobilization.

“I think it’s taken a long time to get to this point where people do this, where there’s this ecology you can work with,” Mara says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556

How about a hot dish?

• TakeThemAMeal.com is an online tool for coordinating the delivery of meals to loved ones. The coordinator can use the site to allow friends or family to sign up for the day or days they will provide meals, as well as what they will bring, to avoid overlap.

• CareCalendar.org is a web-based system to organize meals and other help (errands, housework, rides or visits) during a life changing event, or for long-term situations, like the home-bound and caregiver respite.

All hands on deck

• Lotsahelpinghands.com brings together caregivers and volunteers through online communities during a medical crisis or caregiver exhaustion. A help calendar lets members schedule and sign up for tasks, including meals, rides to appointments and visits. Other features include photo galleries, message boards, personal blogs and well wishes.

• VolunteerSpot.com offers free volunteer scheduling software. Organizers can quickly create an online sign-up sheet and can invite volunteers to sign up. Examples for use include service projects, school carnivals, class parties, swim meets and parent-teacher conferences.

• SignUpGenius.com is a volunteer management system. Users pick a theme, enter the dates/times and slots, and invite members through the site or by sending a link. The site sends reminders to people who have signed up.

Show me the money

• GoFundMe.com is an online fundraising website for personal causes and life events. The site says it has raised more than $160 million in 350,000 campaigns. It charges a 5 percent fee on all campaigns.

• YouCaring.com is a free fundraising website for individuals who want to raise funds for medical expenses, funerals, tuition assistance, animal rescue, mission trips and more.

Making local connections

• ConnectingtheDots.cc is a relatively new site, developed by the Fargo-Moorhead Area Foundation. It highlights community issues, like hunger, domestic violence and the arts. Its Marketplace tab allows nonprofit organizations to post a volunteer-related need (for example, an office assistant or board member). Individuals can also offer their services. “We’re engaging people in the nonprofit sector, but in a more nontraditional way,” says Cher Hersrud, the foundation’s program officer.

• WomensImpact.org allows users to post a need they have as well as offers of help, with the goal of empowering women through connection.

• MyFirstLink.org has a “You Are Needed” link, which lists volunteer opportunities in the community.