Last August, Niki Mock drove her pickup truck from Bethesda to Southeast Washington, D.C., to deliver five refurbished laptops with web cameras just in time for Jamie Youngblood’s youngest kids to begin remote learning classes. She also brought donated bikes, scooters and clothing to Youngblood’s home.
“We were so excited,” says Youngblood, 44, whose nine children range in age from 7 to 25.
Mock and Youngblood stayed in touch after that visit and Mock has returned to Youngblood’s home several times, once hauling a sofa bed and a large dining room table that now serves as a remote-learning desk for the six school-age kids, and other times to drop off Halloween costumes and food at Thanksgiving.
“Anything I’ve asked Niki for, she has helped. She’s unbelievable,” says Youngblood, who has become friends with Mock. “I don’t even think she understands how much of a difference she’s made in our lives.”
For years, Mock, 62, has been doing what she can, often delivering food and donations, to help residents of the District’s Wards 7 and 8, where median family income is about one-third of what it is for Montgomery County residents, according to recent data. She began meeting people in the Southeast neighborhoods nearly 30 years ago when she brought gifts to children as part of a charity holiday project and then started volunteering at a local school, where she also donated gently used and new books. “The kids do not see black or white. I felt really welcomed, loved and needed there,” says Mock, who has three adult children.
With the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the needs of families in Southeast D.C. have intensified—and so has Mock’s response. The freelance video producer put her work on hold over the past year to dedicate her time to collecting and then delivering used bikes, furniture and household items. She and other volunteers who’ve joined her effort monitor group email lists of neighborhoods mostly in Montgomery County to find things that people are giving away and then distribute them to families in Southeast.
Mock often learns about people in need, such as Youngblood, through Kiesha Davis, 31, who lives in Ward 8. She met Davis in December 2019 when both were volunteering at a toy and bike giveaway in Southeast. When it became apparent that there weren’t enough bikes for every child who wanted one, Mock and Davis collected the names of the disappointed families.
Returning to Bethesda, Mock posted a request on her Facebook page and the Nextdoor app, a social networking site for neighborhoods. Within two weeks she collected about 40 bikes—enough for every child on the list. She found volunteers to help fix those that needed repair and then delivered the bikes in her pickup truck. “We took a bad situation and turned it into a blessing,” Davis says.
Another contact in the community, Tawana Baylor, 54, says Mock has earned her trust and that of her neighbors through her regular visits. With so many parents out of work because of the pandemic, Baylor has been providing nearly 100 meals each week to the children in her apartment building through a combination of donations, including grocery store gift cards and food from Mock.
“The kids love her—and they don’t take to everybody. We’ve made her part of our family now around here,” Baylor says. “Most people bring gifts and take pictures just to try to look good. [Mock] sits around here with us. When you sit and try to get to know [the kids], then I know you care.”
Mock says she has been inundated with donations over the past year, especially during the months when most nonprofits were closed and not accepting items. Furniture and boxes of items occasionally sit on her wraparound front porch for a few days before she’s able to deliver them. “All of a sudden, it exploded with people bringing me furniture,” Mock says. “It sort of took on a life of its own.”
Mock estimates she’s collected about 500 bikes, 250 refurbished laptops and thousands of children’s books. Donated items also helped furnish about 40 apartments. Her husband, Phil Leibovitz, grew tired of Mock borrowing his truck, so last summer he bought her the white pickup that she uses to make deliveries two to three times a week. She admits to being “a little obsessed” with her efforts to help the families, but says she feels compelled to keep going as long as there’s a need.
To stay in touch with everyone, Mock now has nearly 500 contacts in her cellphone and fills pages of legal pads with details of requests and deliveries. She recently secured space at a nonprofit in Southeast to store donations, and hopes to find volunteers who can help her craft a more sustainable model for collections and deliveries.
Four volunteers repair donated bikes for free, and Mock’s efforts have motivated several other people to collect items regularly, including Roxana van der Mensbrugghe. After seeing Mock’s social media posts, the Potomac resident emailed her neighbors asking for unwanted household items. She has gathered TVs, dressers, computers, phones, scooters and bikes that Mock picks up from her home. “I admire her, doing this by herself most of the time,” she says of Mock’s informal giving network. “She’s a doer. There’s no bureaucracy.”
“I love the people on both ends. I’m awed by the generosity of the people that help me,” Mock says. “On the other end, there are moms who I can’t imagine how they get through the day and make everything happen. I feel privileged that I get to see all of this.”