Community project feeds frontline healthcare workers— one meal at a time

December 11, 2020

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When the COVID-19 pandemic started breaking out across the United States, Pam Blais began receiving a slew of phone calls. A former 18-year-emergency department registered nurse, Blais had countless friends and co-workers that were suddenly thrust to the frontlines during the biggest global pandemic in more than 100 years.

“People were just calling to vent about what was happening,” says Blais. “Some of the strongest nurses I know, leaders in the emergency department and ICU world, were crying and calling extremely scared—worried they were going to take this virus home or that they themselves might get it.”

After hearing those calls, Blais decided to respond. She recalled her own experience of working in the emergency department and how tough it was for nurses and staff to squeeze in a meal.

“In my 18 years in the emergency department, I probably had less than 10 times where I had a break, sat down at a table, and ate a meal,” says Blais. “And if you do have the time, you feel guilty for doing it because you know that it’s going crazy out there.”

Realizing there would be gaps of meal deliveries and that food support would be critical for frontline workers, Blais and her daughter Gilly, started the Pantry BOX Project.

“The Pantry BOX Project’s mission is to support the frontline staff who are directly involved with the COVID population—the emergency departments, intensive care units, and designated COVID units that exist at every hospital,” says Blais. “We give them trail mix, granola bars, fruit, things like that as a pick-me-up. Just as a ‘I care, I see you, I understand.’”

The Pantry BOX Project has grown in size and demand and has attracted the attention of volunteers such as Cathy C. Fox.

“When I saw what Pam, her daughter, and friends were doing, I knew I wanted to be involved,” says Fox, RN, CEN, CPEN, TCRN, FAEN, and Quality and Safety Nurse for EMD, Lab, and Cardiovascular Service Line at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth. “We often work eight-, 10-, and 12-hour shifts, often without a break to go to the bathroom or even eat a quick bite. Providing a nutritious snack and seeing their faces light up when we deliver a Pantry BOX Project is like Christmas or Hanukkah morning.”

With local hospitals gearing up for both flu season and rising COVID-19 cases, and to be certain that those on the frontlines received actual meals, Blais contacted Tidewater Jewish Foundation to partner on raising the funds to purchase meals for these workers.

“While snacks are enjoyed by our recipients on the frontline, nothing replaces a real meal,” says Blais. “With the restaurant community suffering, we want to make this a win-win for our community. We’ve chosen five, local, non-franchise restaurants that we’re going to exclusively purchase meals from.”

With a fundraising goal of $10,000, the new TJF fund, Front Line Meals of the Pantry Box Project, will be used to purchase meals. Blais says that a $100 donation will provide 20 meals.

Over the past nine months, Blais’s hard work has been recognized in local media. Just last month, she received the People Taking Action Award from WTKR Channel 3, which, according to WTKR, “award[s] citizens who are doing great things in their community.”

“Pam and Gilly’s experience working together, compassionately caring for those taking care of others is a multigenerational philanthropic endeavor,” says Naomi Limor Sedek, TJF president and CEO. “We are proud to play a part in supporting multi-gen philanthropy, as well as our frontline health care workers battling this pandemic.”

Gilly Blais is also incredibly proud of everything she and her mother have accomplished.

“It’s been amazing to see how the community has gotten involved and how they’ve embraced us, embraced this project, and have become as passionate about it as we have,” she says. “It’s especially been nice to partner with Tidewater Jewish Foundation because they understand our mission and share our values. Tikkun olam, repairing the world, giving back to your community—is all very important to us as a family, but also as Jewish people.”

“If you have your health, a roof over your head, food on your table, and you’re not exposed to the virus, think about how you can give back,” says Blais. “I would encourage people to donate. It doesn’t have to be a big amount, whatever amount is going to speak to you, let people see your heart.”

To make a donation to the Front Line Meals of the Pantry Box Project, visit foundation.jewishva.org or TJF Donor Advised Fund holders may make a distribution via TJF’s donor portal at jewishva.donorsphere.org.

- Thomas Mills

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