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Petaluma Profile: Mary Beth Leland helps the housebound handle the quarantine

Mary Beth Leland keeps an odd list these days.

“Flour” is on the top line. “Pick up eggs” comes next. Other items include “strawberry plants,” “bassinet and swing,” “baby clothes,” “small dog adoption,” “shampoos,” “care package,” “yeast,” and finally, “make list and distribute.”

What do these seemingly unrelated things have in common?

They are part of Leland’s ever-changing daily routine as Petalumans continue sheltering in place. The Westside resident, special education teacher and artist is one of a number of locals running a grassroots community connection service in these uncertain days of quarantine.

Leland makes it clear she’s not the only person in town who’s helping out, responding to requests, finding needs and filling them. She emphasizes, “Anyone can be the change and do something to help others.”

She added that she’s inspired by Lynne Moquete, the beloved Human Interaction teacher at Casa Grande High School. During the coronavirus shutdown, Moquete has been arranging delivery of free groceries to more than 50 families every week.

The Lelands - Mary Beth and her husband, Eric - are in their mid-40s. They moved here from Fairfax two years ago. Eric’s a computer consultant who runs a small technology company. He’s also on the board of Redwood Empire Trout Unlimited, which does restoration work on streams in Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt Counties.

When the order came to stay home to slow the spread of COVID-19, the couple jumped into action.

“We started posting ideas about how to get through shelter in place,” Mary Beth said. “In the beginning, it was less about the exchange of goods and more about how to build community. It evolved into, ‘Hey can you find out if someone needs this?’?”

At the moment, she pointed out, many community members want to help, and a high number of people have ideas.

“They’re posting on Facebook, ‘What if we did this or that?’?” Leland said. “But I don’t think everyone understands, rather than waiting for someone to initiate it, why not just do it?”

So she’s been doing just that, simultaneously setting an example for others.

“It seems all I do these days is scroll Facebook for people who need things,” she said. “I ask the world, the world responds and everyone is happy. It’s the easiest community service gig of my life. I haven’t seen a single case on Facebook that hasn’t gotten handled within 24 hours.”

Eric added, “She’s got a lot of projects. She’ll figure out some of the needs and who has them, whether she knows the people or not. People speak up, saying, ‘I have this or that.’”

For example, consider the neighbors with a prolific lemon tree, who kept giving the Lelands lemons. The Lelands wanted to give back, but their neighbors already seemed to have everything they needed until they said, “We want to bake bread, but can’t find flour anywhere.”

Mary Beth posted on Facebook, asking if anyone had flour, and a woman replied she had some in her refrigerator and was happy to pass it on - and by the way, if anyone had snacks, her kids would love them.

“It becomes a circle of giving,” Mary Beth said.

There was another woman with an injured neck who posted, asking, “Can anybody help me unscrew something?”

“I drove over there,” Mary Beth said, “and unscrewed it for her. We both got a good laugh about how random that was.”

Then there was the Great Petaluma Easter Bunny Caper.

It began, Mary Beth said, back during the Tubbs fire, when the Petaluma fairgrounds was an evacuation center.

“I volunteered there, to give kids recreation activities,” she recalled. “One was rock painting. People painted the most beautiful rocks and when they left, they didn’t take them with them. There were more than 100 painted rocks, and they were going to throw them away when they were cleaning up. The rocks were so lovely and meaningful, I kept thinking we should do a fundraiser.”

The idea never quite got off the ground - until recently.

“The Easter Bunny contacted me,” Leland went on, “and asked ‘Can I use those rocks?’ He posted, through me, that he’d be scattering ‘eggs’ (rocks) around parts of the west side the night before Easter, because he knew he couldn’t go into houses. There’d be a community Easter egg hunt, but you needed to look but not touch. People were messaging me with their addresses because Eric and I facilitated the hunt on the Easter Bunny’s behalf.”

And then there’s the Nightly Howl, every evening from 8 to 8:05 p.m.

“Howling was happening other places,” Mary Beth said. “I blasted it on four different Facebook groups, texted, went door to door, got people we knew to take part. I think many had already heard of it and as soon as someone said, ‘Hey I heard it’s starting here tonight,’ they were ready to get out there. I think it would have started here eventually. I just happened to get to it first.”

The Lelands are clearly enjoying themselves.

“What better feeling is there,” Mary Beth asked, “than recognizing in a time of need that you’re helping to get a need met?”

Eric said, “I think it’s neat. You get to see the best of people - a lot of the time. I think most people want to help.”

“It’s why I feel I exist,” Mary Beth added. “To be of service to people.”

The bottom line, they both agree, is, “We’re all here, and we’re all going to be getting through this together.”

(Katie Watts is a longtime Petaluma writer, and former staff reporter for the Argus-Courier. You can reach her at MingleMopper@gmail.com)

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