Would you shovel for your neighbor? The ‘Snow Crew’ website is looking for volunteers

A shopper buys a shovel at Woodside ACE Hardware in Winthrop, Mass. (Photo: Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
A shopper buys a shovel at Woodside ACE Hardware in Winthrop, Mass. (Photo: Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

You never know when you’ll need a little bit of neighborly assistance during an emergency like the approaching blizzard. Unfortunately, less than half of Americans actually know the people in their communities, a fact that becomes all the more acute when it comes to needing cups of sugar or dealing with snowstorm aftermath. But a volunteer-run website is linking strangers offline while helping them keep each other safe.

Snow Crew was launched in 2009 by Joseph Porcelli, a friendly neighbor from Jamaica Plain. He started the site by taking requests for help shoveling sidewalks or cars, and then farming them out to neighborhood volunteers. Today the project has grown into a national website, and it’s bracing for a flood of offers and requests for help after this forthcoming storm.

At SnowCrew.org, residents can post a description of the shoveling help they need: A car, a driveway, something else—and able volunteers, or “Yetis” in Snow Crew parlance, can find and assist them.

“If there’s snow covering the cars, the more specific you are the better,” Porcelli said. He suggests sharing only what information you are comfortable leaving up on the Web. “You can just say, I need help shoveling.”

Porcelli, who is now a senior city strategist at Nextdoor in Washington, D.C., has been running neighborhood events since 2005. He hosted the first Snow Crew in Boston in 2009, taking requests from Boston residents using Google Forms and filling out a matching Google Map to direct crews to places that needed help.

In 2011, he said, volunteers banded into benevolent “snow mobs,” and cleared out bus stops and sidewalks unasked.

Screenshot via Snow Crew

Screenshot via Snow Crew

Last year, Porcelli launched a “snow crew-sade,” where he drove from New Jersey to Maryland stopping to offer his shoveling services along the way.

“People are so appreciative,” he said.

But he was also struck by the level of disconnect in the towns he visited. “Each person I helped was surrounded by neighbors, but they didn’t know their neighbors,” he said.

He found they were more likely to ask for help if there was an opportunity for them to return the favor at a later date.

Snow Crew owes its current site design to SeeClickFix, a neighborhood service organization based in New Haven, Conn. that’s built an app and Web service that allows citizens and their governments to communicate better. Essentially, townspeople can flag maintenance and improvement requests, and SeeClickFix provides the assistance to process those requests.

“He’s king Yeti,” Ben Berkowitz, chief executive at SeeClickFix said of Porcelli. Thanks to the partnership between the two, the Snow Crew website is easy to navigate and has been updated with weather information from the National Weather Service.

Berkowitz’s advice for volunteers? “Take a hot cocoa break and whiskey is always advised at the end.”

SeeClickFix reaches about 40 million citizens around the world, and has partnerships with local groups and governments in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Houston, Oakland, and recently opened in Portland, Maine. Randolph and Malden are the most active Massachusetts towns on SeeClickFix.

If your neighborhood isn’t very active on Snow Crew yet, there are others like Help Around Town, where people are also posting calls for help.

The city of Boston is already leaning on its citizens for some volunteer shoveling. The “Adopt a Hydrant” project, which launched in 2012, allows citizens to volunteer to clear out an area around a local fire hydrant in case it needs to be accessed by a fire department.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at [email protected]
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