Jahmal Cole is a community organizer in Chatham, a largely elderly and African-American community on the South Side of Chicago.
As a heavy snowstorm swept across the northern Midwest over the weekend, Cole started to get calls from seniors in the community who needed someone to shovel snow in front of their homes.
Some people had asthma conditions. Others had neuropathy in both wrists, and a few were carrying oxygen tanks. They were all overwhelmed and frightened to be stuck in their own house, according to Cole.
“After I received 30 calls I put the word out on social media that I needed help,” he told CNN.
In his tweet, Cole asked for 10 volunteers to help shovel the foot of snow that had piled up outside the houses of elderly people in Chatham. “Meet me at the 79th St. Red Line stop at 10:00 am tomorrow. I got hoodies, hats and lunch for anybody that comes through,” he wrote.
The next morning, 120 people showed up, the majority of them from outside Chatham. In just a few hours, his tweet gathered more than 22,000 retweets and 64,000 likes, inspiring people to take action.
“They saw the post and showed up, many with shovel in hand,” Cole said.
Chicagoans came from as far north as Rogers Park and as far south as Roseland. One volunteer took a bus from two-and-a-half hours away in Indiana, according to Cole.
Cole, who brought 10 shovels and a 15-passenger van to transport people, had to rush to the local Lowe’s home-improvement store to buy more shovels.
Together the volunteers, which included a 70-year-old woman and people from many different backgrounds, shoveled nonstop for four hours. Then on Sunday, 11 more people showed up to help.
As a proud Chicagoan, Cole is happy but not surprised by the extraordinary response.
“Chicago reflects who I am and I have a responsibility to what it is,” he said.
“My mindset is always, ‘What’s something simple that I can do that’ll have a positive impact on my block and my neighborhood’?
“You don’t have to have a law degree to shovel your neighbor’s walkway,” he continued.
Cole’s non-profit, My Block My Hood My City, which he runs with only two full-time staff and no office space, takes teenagers from under-served communities on educational field trips. He receives thousands of messages offering help from as far as Canada and the UK.
Cole calls on people to get out of their own communities to help make Chicago more interconnected.
“When most people hear about something negative happening in another Chicago community, especially where people are a lot different from them, it might as well have happened in another country,” he says.
“But when you visit different communities and interact with the residents, it can change all that.”