By Deborah Bostock-Kelley
Fred Rogers once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
Despite social media littered with inflammatory posts of people hoarding toilet paper and ignoring six feet of separation, or the stay-at-home order, sprinkled in-between are stories of people reaching out to make a difference.
The helpers are ordinary men and women taking it upon themselves to provide entertainment, make masks, halo shields for those in harm’s way, feed essential workers and those on the frontlines, and deliver meals by bicycle to many whom it’s dangerous to leave the home, as well as supply food for pets so they aren’t surrendered and even start a nonprofit to help small business during this unprecedented time in our shared history.
Fred’s quote resonates now more than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic, locally and across our country.
Here are a few highlights of the helpers in our community.
Bicycle Food Delivery
In Seminole Heights a group of neighborhood friends, bicyclists in an informal Facebook group, Heights Citizens Bicycle Brigade, are delivering food to the homebound, elderly, and immune-compromised. Founder Devon Brady, a Captain for Hillsborough County Fire Rescue posed a question to his fellow cyclists.
“I had a thought about doing something to support to the businesses in the area and what they would need to keep going through this. I put a call out to the guys in the bike group and said, ‘what do you think about setting up a delivery service?’”
With around 30 volunteers handling dispatch and the delivery riders receiving orders by text, Devon has a complex system nailed down.
When asked why delivery via bikes versus an automobile, Devon responded, “It’s as fast or faster to get around in a few mile radius on a bike. It’s open-air. You’re not contaminating things by taking them in and out of people’s vehicles that may or may not be clean. We ride up to the business out front. They know us now, so they just put the order in the basket of the bike. No hand to hand exchange going on between the businesses and we drop of at the doorsteps, so no contact there either. We minimize the contact as much as possible.
“It’s renewable. It’s sustainable, and that was my thinking when putting this together. If long-term, gas became an issue, you can always ride your bike.”
Any bicyclist interested in volunteering to deliver meals can visit the Facebook page and visit the scheduling page to sign up at https://www.facebook.com/groups/heightsbrigade/
A Community of Writers
In a time when community to Broadway stages are dark, twenty-year-old University of Minnesota / Guthrie Theater B.F.A. Actor Training Program student Gus Mahoney reached out to his friends, college student Nigel Berkeley and Willie Jones to embark on a way to bring the theatre world together virtually during Covid-19.
In March, to pass the time in mandatory lockdown, he put out a call to action on social media to his friends and a few other college students about a short playwriting challenge called Quarantine Bake-Off. Participants would receive five key ingredients that would need to be incorporated into a finished short play by a next day deadline.
“I released the event flyer on Friday, March 13th and figured we’d be lucky to have at most 100 people be a part of this. By Saturday morning, we had 600 people emailing. By Sunday night, we had 5,000. It was all just social media sharing – it shows the power of social media,” said Gus. “It was quite the insane experience. We had people from all over the world, all different backgrounds, all ages, races, genders. It was an incredible experience. This is the first time I’ve really seen social media bring us together, rather than tear us apart.”
Gus is looking about creating festivals based upon the plays received and is trying to figure out how to build upon the network of writers the challenge created and continue past the quarantine.
“When we talk about history, we talk about it in retrospect. These plays are very interesting as they are real-time, real responses to being in Coronavirus rather than looking at the history of it. We don’t know what’s going to happen in two months, much less two days. These plays are in-the-moment people’s understanding of what’s going on.”
Theatre Time Capsule
During the unexpected dark time, Powerstories Theatre Founder Fran Powers and her team have discovered an innovative way to be true to their mission statement of “staging true stories to open minds and hearts and inspire action worldwide” while adapting to entertain their audience in this new virtual reality.
In April, they launched #positivelypowerstories, a website dedicated to showcasing the good that has come out of Covid-19 and creating a time capsule of life during the 2020 pandemic. Fran Powers and her team use social media to encourage people to share their stories, creating a time capsule of an unprecedented shared time in history. Each week a new episode debuts with stories, videos, and artwork of people around the country, from young children to senior citizen.
“We are building something beautiful,” Fran said, “We cannot be very physically connected at this time, but we can be spiritually connected.”
3-D Printed Halo Shields
Lorri Brown told her daughter the eve of March 21 that she was going to start 3-D printing halo shields to help the men and women in the hospitals on the frontlines of Coronavirus.
“She kind of rolled her eyes, ‘ok Mom,’” Lorri recalled about her post. “The next morning Eric Burton saw what I was planning and he has a 3-D printer at home and he started making the prototype. He was messaging me videos and I was thinking that it was actually workable. We can do this.”
Lorri decided she needed ten 3-D printers, so she needed to raise $3K via GoFundMe. Tim Keeports, Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association saw the GoFundMe and forwarded the fundraiser to Michael R. Guinn, who just happened to have 15 industrial size 3-D printers ready to donate to her cause.
“God just brought it all together,” she said.
Christ Fellowship Seminole Heights donated their now empty community center space to set up the 3-D printers during the quarantine and they were in up and operational by Sunday.
Over 3000 masks have been printed.
On April 1, the first halo mask ever made was used by a nurse. On April 15, 300 face shields were delivered to Hillsborough County Fire Rescue firefighters and paramedics.
“Our goal is to do 6000, and now I have another project. Michael and Tim are handling the 3-D lab, so I’m setting up another department because we have a lot of church volunteers. I’m going to start making cloth masks,” she said. “Keeping social distance, we can definitely do this. My goal is to distribute throughout the church and their families. This isn’t for the medical community. I want to blanket Seminole Heights. We can all do something and if we all do a little something, it’s comes together to be huge.”
To learn more or to volunteer, visit https://timecounts.org/tampa-ready-3d?fbclid=IwAR2TjUw6Qk2ThKd9XoThRfRY3NIQg6Kb1ZKhmmuqtk9tN-hpcx5mqRBcyGs.
“I just bought my first food and bedding for a gerbil,” joked Rhonda Eldridge, president of the mobile nonprofit, The Community Pet Project that provides basic needs to the pets of the homeless and at-risk in Hillsborough County. Rhonda turns her garage into a makeshift warehouse.
Normally, Rhonda and her go team go out to the homeless outreaches four times a year in partnership with Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department, Tampa Police Department, Temple Terrace and Tampa International Airport.
Because of the overwhelming number of animal surrenders happening due to Covid-19, the nonprofit began getting requests for help from people impacted beyond her regular clients. Rhonda made the decision to open their service to anyone that’s been affected by the pandemic. They offer a no-contact delivery and will text to let the recipient know they’re in route.
“They don’t have to fill out any paperwork. They simply tell us they’ve been affected medically – their doctor has told them not to go out and go shopping – or they’re physically ill themselves or they have loss or reduction in income. They notify us, and we will supply them food at this time. People are so grateful that they can feed their furbabies because they think how can I eat if I can’t feed my pet.”
Since opening their doors to assist the public during Coronavirus, the organization has assisted nearly 500 pets, ranging from dogs and cats to small animals like ferrets, guinea pigs, and gerbils.
“A dog owner said we have a dog and a ferret. I opened the email and realized we have nothing for a ferret. I said to myself, ‘seriously, you’re going to go there and drop off food for a dog and look at that ferret in the face and not feed it?’ I can’t do that. So I stopped at Petsmart and I’m like, ‘show me what ferrets eat.’ We bought a bag of ferret food.”
Grateful pet parents share photos of their pets on the nonprofit’s Facebook page.
“Our vision is to bring the community together. We don’t want you to surrender your best friend. Nobody’s at fault for this. It’s not like you got fired from your job. We’re all victims of Covid. And if you’re a victim why should you have to lose your pet? You’ve already lost so much. Why do you have to lose your best friend? I couldn’t do it, so I’m not going to let somebody else do it, if I can help them. Not if we can stop it.”
Rhonda is seeking volunteers that can go to Seffner to pick up the deliveries and deliver to the pet parents in need throughout Hillsborough County. For more information about assistance or volunteering, visit https://www.facebook.com/pg/communitypetproject or https://communitypetproject.org.
Small Business Assistance
When Covid-19 shut down small businesses in their hometown of Tampa Bay, high school juniors, sixteen-year-old Jordyn Koche and seventeen-year-old Robbie Herzig knew what they had to do. It wasn’t Neflix or Animal Crossing. They started a GoFundMe page to create a nonprofit, Covid Relief Foundation of Tampa Bay for small businesses.
“My family has really close friends impacted by the virus who are hairstylists, nail salons, massage therapists, restaurants really hit hard by this. Their businesses are closing,” said Jordyn. “One thing related to this virus that is good is that it’s bringing our community closer together. People are feeling really connected at this time. If that could be a lasting effect afterwards, it could be a silver lining to all that’s happened.”
Robbie added, “Small business is really the heart of the community. During this time, everyone is missing out on the community, so people value it more. We just want to make sure coming out of this businesses are not only surviving, but back on their feet so everything can get back to normal and be the culture and community that we’re used to it being. You have to appreciate what makes our hometowns special and unique and that’s always the small businesses. That’s the main reason for us wanting to get this started.”
Once fully funded, the two will be taking applications from business owners and screening possible fund recipients to ensure they will be putting the money back into their businesses by rehiring or keeping employees working.
Additionally, the industrious teenagers reached out to partner with Ciccio Restaurant Group. They are currently giving away approximately 800 meals per week to local fire stations, police stations, and hospitals.
Jordyn said, “I think it’s important to realize that even something small can have a really big effect, especially in a time like this. If a lot of people are doing small things, ripple effects will happen and it will just make the community stronger.”
To date the project has raised over $14,000 of its $50,000. To learn more, visit https://www.facebook.com/groups/923803724756457/about/ and to donate visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/covid-relief-foundation-of-tampa-bay.
In normal circumstances, the award-winning music showcase in its sixth year and 14th showcase, Life Amplified would be in a theatre with all ticket sales donated to a small, grassroots charity. During these uncommon times, Life Amplified PAJAMA PARTY went virtual to offer a free music festival to the community on Zoom.
On April 18, founder Deb Kelley curated 30 of the very best singers from community, professional and off-Broadway theatre to perform live from their living rooms across the country.
“This came together in a matter of weeks only because of Covid-19. These performers are extraordinary and always extremely booked, in high demand. The fact that I had over 40 volunteer to sing during our unexpected downtime absolutely fills my heart with joy. Performers are bored not being on stage and are used to that routine. This group of people I feel completely blessed to call friends. They’re the helpers with the kindest hearts. Helpers are found everywhere. You just need to ask.”
To learn more about Life Amplified and any upcoming performances, visit https://www.facebook.com/lifeamplifiedvarietyshowcase/ or www.lifeamplifiedshowcase.com.
In Pensacola, by mid-April, Jessica Patton and the Pensacola Mask Sewers, affectionately dubbed the Masketeers have delivered over 10,000 masks to Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.
“I was watching the news and saw a hospital in Indiana had put out a pattern for making 100% cotton masks. I started calling people and asking them to make masks. I got out my sewing machine and made one. It was pretty simple. I started a Facebook page on a Saturday afternoon and by the next day it was 400 people, then 1000, then 2000. It just keeps growing.”
Jessica’s mother and grandmother were ER nurses, so growing up, she saw firsthand what her mother went through.
“The thought that she or any other nurse having to go and take care of somebody who is so sick and potentially going to die and potentially make them sick for lack of a mask seemed unbelievable to me,” she said. “I believe that one person can change the world. When we really care about something and believe in it, and come together with others who believe in the same thing, we can effect positive change. It’s been really beautiful watching people come together, working with people I normally wouldn’t meet – every age, every race, every sexuality. It’s very cool to see everyone work together for a common goal. I love the community we built.”
Not only is their Facebook page a place to find community and hope during the pandemic, the group started an emotional support team.
The group is also making surgical gowns for two local hospitals and with materials supplied by the hospital, H-600 masks from the surgical material medical instruments are wrapped in.
“It’s amazing when I look back and think ‘I did all this from home.’ It just shows you the power of WE and the power of Together.”
To learn more or to volunteer, visit https://www.facebook.com/groups/203196457622124.
“My nephew is in medical school and both my brother and dad are doctors, the men and women who jumped in no questions asked, risking their lives to help others. I’ve always been supportive of medical workers because this is close to my heart,” said Froyo Fresh founder Tanya Rubin.
Froyo Fresh delivered 200 cups of frozen yogurt with toppings to the hard-working doctors and nurses at St. Joseph’s Hospital, Martin Luther King.
“We wanted to give something back to show our appreciation to those on the front lines,” said Tanya.
When BJ’s Warehouse reached out to her from a Facebook post, Tanya did not hesitate to answer the call to help.
“We also delivered 200 cups to the BJ’s Warehouse in Tampa Bay. They are essential workers now and really on the front lines to because they have to deal with all the customers coming in.”
If any medical organization or essential business would like Tanya to bring Froyo Fresh treats to thank their staff, please email her at email@example.com.
“I was reading about how restaurants are really hurting, so what we did was a win-win. We contacted restaurants that weren’t able to survive and we got them to come up with a $10 price-point meal. We mobilized the community to call in orders to be donated. The restaurant delivers to our contact person at Tampa General Hospital. She’s in charge of charities and delivers to the various departments. She keeps track of the orders,” explained Michelle Augley.
Fourteen restaurants participating in this community volunteer-driven program called Together for Tampa have been able to bring in furloughed workers and make regular lunches and dinners for the frontline workers at Tampa General.
To date, the group consists of Michelle, Radhika Patel who created the Facebook page, Cheryl Miller who designed a webpage and handles restaurant outreach, Ann Danner who does outreach, and Janet Hoffnagle who regularly posts on NextDoor neighbor app.
Together, the four have reached out to the community and raised $10,000 in meal purchase donations.
The Davis Island Yacht Club recently donated 290 meals.
“Our little idea, slow and steady, is getting some traction and is helping our neighborhood. It takes so little to do so much. One idea can be mobilized into a force for change.”
Danielle Sullivan and Penny Foote met through PB&J Kids Spreading Help where they fed the homeless. On March 20, Penny started a Facebook group and texted Danielle, “Help!”
Penny had been reading about how nurses were suggested to wear scarves and bandanas, and with friends who were nurses, she was concerned for their safety and well-being.
“I began thinking we can come together as a community and we can help them,” said Penny. “Every day the group grows. We get more sewers, more runners, and more donations. The group grows which means we can help more people. Nurses should never be forced to go into work without the protection they need. It’s not fair. If the government can’t provide for them, then the people in this community can get them out as soon as possible to the people that need them.”
People with time on their hands, wanting to focus on something good, wanting to help found the perfect solution in The Mask Project Tampa Bay.
“We got busy spreading the word. Every time the media kicks in we get another two and three hundred members involved. I encourage our group members to share the word and try to recruit people. We’re at over 4000 members now in 18 days,” said Danielle.
The Mask Project Tampa Bay is now in seven counties: Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Polk, Manatee, and Sarasota with over 20,000 requests for masks.
“Our goal was 10,000 masks and we’re already close to 9,000,” said Danielle. “Though we have businesses coming on to mass produce, right now it’s people sewing with their sewing machines. People are being supportive, asking ‘how can I help?’ We literally built this system from the ground up. Every time we get the hang of it, we get another thousand people. We’ve had to learn and grow, and learn and grow.”
Volunteers are taking material from donors and spreading them through the seven counties.
Their next level initiative is getting businesses involved to sponsor a lunch for a local nurses unit, or donating resources or monetarily.
To volunteer or learn more, visit their website at https://app.smartsheet.com/b/publish?EQBCT=4a4706fecb474f08999601e18bfa2601&fbclid=IwAR0q1Vtq_07YLLPBUulRJUdayZ_j-0ZKkZUjiMQ0ESgHQGzPP4DitiawSXU
When someone says, ‘I’m only one person, what can I do?’ think of the extraordinary men and women who decided to become the helpers for no fanfare, no reward, and no other reason than they could.