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By Dennis Taylor
For frontline healthcare workers in Santa Cruz and Watsonville, it’s a ray of sunlight and a boost in morale. For local restaurants, it’s an opportunity to contribute to their community for reasons more philanthropic than financial. For the small gaggle of friends who collaborated to make it all happen, it’s food for the soul.
Since March 27, doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists and other personnel at healthcare facilities throughout Santa Cruz County have been receiving surprise deliveries of hot meals, prepared by some of the area’s most-popular restaurants, purchased by generous sponsors, and delivered by a grassroots, all-volunteer community group calling itself COVID Meals.
“These healthcare workers who are protecting our community from this pandemic might be coming off a long shift, sometimes after restaurants are closed,” said Marty Picco, who started the local humanitarian effort with his wife, Liz, after they delivered 40 meals from Vasili’s Greek Restaurant to the Driftwood Healthcare Center several weeks ago. “A lot of them are self-isolating and alone. We just wanted to give them something a little bit special — a hot meal from some of the better restaurants in our county, and a little bit of love.”
That random act of kindness — delivering meals to Driftwood — typifies Liz Picco, says a close friend.
“Liz made that first delivery on her own birthday — it was a birthday present to herself,” said Stephanie Gelman, who has known Picco for more than 40 years. “She’s always been an action-oriented person who makes positive changes wherever they’re needed, and always does it in a big way.”
Gelman heard the story when she dropped off a birthday present and instantly felt inspired to volunteer to make deliveries, alongside her 27-year-old daughter, Simone, a nursing student. Two days later, she recruited friends from her tennis team to sponsor 25 meals, which were delivered to the emergency room at Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz.
As of this week, they had delivered 575 dinners from 15 restaurants to 10 separate facilities. Every delivery comes with three dozen cookies from Pacific Cookie Company, and personalized notes from sponsors attached to the packages. An additional 10 restaurants also have signed on and will soon be participating.
“For me, this all started with a phone conversation I had with one of my dear friends, Amy Contardi, who lives in Petaluma,” Liz Picco said. “We were feeling stressed about everything that was going on with the coronavirus, wondering what was going to happen to our communities. In Santa Cruz, which has a huge tourist industry, the economy has flatlined.”
The following day, Contardi told Picco about a friend who had purchased 25 meals from a favorite restaurant and delivered them to the ER at an Oakland hospital.
“That email was my inspiration to start doing the same thing in Santa Cruz,” said Picco, a teacher, writer and editor.
Vasili’s was first to sign on as a meal provider, followed by Ella’s at the Airport and Kickin’ Chicken (which makes its own late-night deliveries of COVID Meals-sponsored dinners to graveyard-shift medical workers.)
“I discovered COVID Meals through Instagram, saw that a different restaurant had participated, and I asked them how to sign up,” said Amanda Rivas, manager of Cilantro’s Mexican Restaurant in Watsonville. “We already have a great relationship with local medical facilities that are close by, and we saw this as a wonderful way to help our community in a time of crisis. That’s always a very rewarding feeling for us.”
Each participating restaurant prepares a COVID Meals menu on which every selection is priced at $12 plus tax. Community members may purchase as few as one meal, or as many as they want, to be sent to the local medical facility of their choice, simply by calling in an order to a participating restaurant. COVID Meals volunteers facilitate delivery.
All of the above is done through the website, covid-meals.org, where volunteers also may register to help with tasks that include deliveries, coordinating with restaurants, coordinating with healthcare facilities, promotion and sponsor outreach, tech and site operation, and regional management tasks.
“We have three healthcare centers, and I think these deliveries make all of our workers feel like the community really cares about the hard work they’re doing,” said Amy Peeler, chief of clinic services for the Watsonville Health Center. “I think there was a need for this service in terms of morale, and I also think these deliveries fill a need for our healthcare workers, who work 8-10-hour shifts, in terms of time and resources.”
Said Gelman, “When we deliver these meals, they’re literally jumping up and down, saying, ‘Oh, my god, thank you!’ And for us, it’s such a great feeling to do something nice for somebody else, especially when it’s a way to thank these people who are putting their lives on the line for us every day.”
The Piccos intend to keep COVID Meals active for as long as there is a need, and are hoping to find enough sponsors to expand to seven-day-per-week deliveries soon.
They also have been contacted by people requesting a template that will enable them to duplicate the covid-meals.org website (designed by Marty Picco), along with information about how to start a COVID Meals organization in other states.
Sponsorship of meals is currently the greatest need of the organization. Visit the website at covid-meals.org or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org for information.
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