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While much of San Antonio was frozen amid the harsh cold snap, small groups of volunteers have moved about the city, delivering supplies and offering warm places to stay to those without the necessities: food, water, shelter, and heat to stave off the biting winter freeze.

The supplies, and the money to buy more, didn’t come from a federal or state-backed emergency fund or assistance program. Instead, they’re forms of mutual aid: community-sourced donations of items, money, resources, and time. A key component of the mutual aid strategy is organizing and acting in solidarity with community members to address an issue or lack of resources – especially in response to governmental neglect.

“We know existing infrastructure has failed community and continues to fail community, so we have no one else to count on but each other,” said Teri Castillo, who volunteers with the Historic Westside Residents Association and San Antonio DSA. Castillo, who’s from the West Side, has been purchasing and dropping off supplies to neighbors in her area. 

Tortillas, bread, and milk are some of the main requests of affected community members, she said, as well as Gatorade and Pedialyte for those trying to stay hydrated while dealing with COVID-19.

Teri Castillo of the Historic Westside Resident Association addresses the Housing Commission and fellow housing advocates during a meeting regarding the San Antonio Housing Authority's eviction process.
Teri Castillo of the Historic Westside Residents Association addresses the Housing Commission and fellow housing advocates in 2019. Credit: Iris Dimmick / San Antonio Report

Every item is bought using donated money and is delivered by a volunteer at no cost to the recipient. Local organizations and grassroots efforts such as Yanawana Herbolarios, Black Futures Collective, Plants for Mutual Aid, Sueños sin Fronteras, Trinity Mutual Aid, and Para Mi Gente have collected monetary donations via their cause’s Venmo, Paypal, or GoFundMe accounts to buy hotel rooms for freezing families, cold-weather gear for unsheltered individuals, groceries, hot meals, and a variety of other types of mutual aid.

With widespread power outages, frozen water pipes, and store and road closures, helping out was a no-brainer for Castillo.

“Within the West Side we have this care economy where if someone is in need of something, we’ll give it to you or we’ll lend it to you,” she said. “We just take care of each other.”

Although the City of San Antonio, churches, and other entities opened warming centers and shelters, mutual aid can reach people who can’t make it to a warming center or a store to buy groceries.

“We got cold weather gear out to at least 100 houseless individuals,” said Maria Turvin, founder of Yanawana Herbolarios, a local nonprofit that provides free holistic health clinics and educational classes to the city’s underserved. “We purchased thousands of dollars of gear and distributed it. All of it was purchased with community-donated funds.”

Mutual aid is not a new concept, and certainly not in San Antonio. The city’s history is rich with grassroots organizing aimed at equipping people with the means to survive and lead a fulfilling life, especially in historically underserved and marginalized neighborhoods. But over the past year, more community aid is being shared in the wake of widespread unemployment and need for medical care during the coronavirus pandemic.

In August 2020, 13-year-old Summer Vinton started a neighborhood pantry – Free Little Pantry SA – at her family’s CBD store near St. Paul Square. She wanted to provide food, toiletries, and other supplies for the homeless community in the area, and for anyone else who needed it. Neighbors can take from the pantry as well as donate to it.

“We’ve had several folks and families who came to the pantry to get something, and then a couple of weeks later they came back and put stuff in the pantry for others to use,” said Kim Vinton, Summer’s mother. “That’s it coming full circle.”

Krissy Gutierrez and Abe Salinas transformed a filing cabinet into a neighborhood food pantry where items such as rice, beans, toilet paper, and canned goods are stored for any person to give or take from the shelves in March 2020. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Amid large-scale financial and medical insecurity, it’s been a challenge for some governmental aid programs and charitable institutions that are overwhelmed with applicants to address the needs of everyone in a timely manner. Mutual aid efforts are a way to provide direct and meaningful support to neighbors, especially those who need immediate help.

“The resources do exist, but the distribution of these resources is not always there,” Turvin said. “It’s been really great to see community members rise up and be like, ‘All right, guys, it’s time to do this for ourselves.’”

Social media has played an important role in collecting donations and informing the community of available resources near them. The Jovita Idár Pantry and Fridge, which has six pantries around the city, created a public document listing all the neighborhood pantries and community refrigerators around San Antonio. Restaurants around town have offered free hot meals and delivery. Other people, perhaps unaffiliated with any one group or effort, have posted on their personal pages, offering specific help to anyone who needs it. 

One community Facebook post reads: “Anyone needs help with frozen pipes or water heater not working in San Antonio. My husband Benny will go help get it to work. Free of charge we just want to help. Let me know. You call him directly.”

For many in San Antonio, including Turvin, offering free financial help, child care, groceries, transportation, and any other kind of community support is not necessarily considered “mutual aid.” It’s just what you do.

“Every person out there, whether I’ve met them or not, is my relative,” Turvin said. “I may not always agree with all of my relatives, but they’re still my relatives. And I feel like it’s my responsibility – morally, socially – to do whatever I can to actively be a part of my community, to actively be a part of solutions.”

Camille Garcia is a journalist born and raised in San Antonio. She formerly worked at the San Antonio Report as assistant editor and reporter. Her email is