Giving back: Communities, organizations mobilize to feed, house health care workers

“I feel really blessed. I’ve been losing sleep over this whole thing and I felt like it was my answered prayer,” one nurse said
Image: Michael MacKelvie's group, Feed the Fearless, is raising money to purchase meals from local restaurants to donate to health care workers in Oregon and Washington.
Michael MacKelvie's group, Feed the Fearless, is raising money to purchase meals from restaurants to donate to health care workers in Oregon and Washington.Courtesy of Michael MacKelvie

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By Suzanne Ciechalski and Caitlin Fichtel

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt life throughout the United States, communities are banding together to assist doctors, nurses and first responders with the essentials: food and housing.

From New York City to Washington state, and across states and cities in between, people have donated thousands of meals to health care workers through various organizations, while others have provided temporary housing to doctors and nurses who are on the front lines of the pandemic.

"It's really empowering just to see how people want to be a part of this," Michael MacKelvie, one of the organizers of the group Feed the Fearless, told NBC News by phone.

MacKelvie, a financial planner in Wilsonville, Ore., has been working with Feed the Fearless to purchase food from independently owned restaurants to donate to hospital workers in Oregon and Vancouver, Washington. The group has raised more than $20,000 to purchase meals.

Joel Wishkovsky, an organizer with Frontline Foods, said his donation-based group started out about three weeks ago and has since expanded to 25 chapters and about 400 volunteers nationwide as of Thursday. They have also partnered with World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit group founded by celebrity chef Jose Andres.

In Massachusetts, Tracy Chang, the head chef at Pagu in Cambridge, is working with the nonprofit organization Off Their Plate to bring free meals to hospital workers.

The organization "Off Their Plate" partnered with local restaurants, including Mei Mei in Boston, to deliver free meals to healthcare workers at Brigham and Women's Hospital.Courtesy of Mike Kristan

The organization has raised over $1 million and is currently in nine states, with a presence in Boston, New York City, and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Off Their Plate involves a network of chefs, hospital workers and volunteers. Each chef pledges to donate a certain number of meals a week to a specific hospital or medical center and the fundraisers work to raise the money for them to employ the staff necessary to cook and distribute those meals.

All of these groups operate on a straightforward premise: They’re trying to give back to health care workers while providing business to restaurants who may be suffering economically from a lack of business due to the spread of coronavirus.

"Nationally we're talking about putting more than $1 million into restaurants' pockets," Wishkovsky said, noting that in certain markets like New York and Los Angeles, Frontline Foods is injecting $50,000 to $200,000 into local restaurants.

Chang told NBC News’ Social Newsgathering team she was happy to partner with Off Their Plate because she wanted “to feed health care front-line workers but also feed my employees who have been family to me.”

In New York City, the epicenter of the United States’ coronavirus outbreak, Cole Riley noticed that there was an opportunity to help provide hospital workers with food and beverages to keep them refueled while working grudgingly long shifts.

He started the organization #FoundersGive, which has partnered with companies such as Kind, Chobani and Sabra to donate snacks and beverages to city-area hospitals.

“The products are meant for front-line workers who don’t have any products or snacks,” Riley told NBC News.

One of the hospitals he has teamed up with is Lenox Hill in Manhattan. Joe Leggio, the hospital's associate executive director, said it has been “overwhelmed with the amount of kindness and generosity" the food and beverage companies have shown.

He said the hospital staff “are ecstatic, they so appreciate it. It’s the small things that go such a long way.”

Other organizations are working to provide health care workers with temporary housing if they choose to make the difficult decision to self-isolate from their families.

Emily Phillips, the wife of an emergency room doctor in Dallas, posted on Facebook that she was looking for an RV to rent where her husband, Jason, could stay.

Phillips said she was worried about the health of her family, which includes a 6-month-old, a 5-year-old, and an 8-year-old who, like Phillips, suffers from asthma.

Ohio hospice nurse Megan Willig was matched with a loaned RV from Jeff and Sue Winterhalther-Decker through the organization RVs 4 MDs.Courtesy of Jeff and Sue Winterhalther-Decker

She was connected through a mutual friend to Holly Haggard, who had an RV she was willing to provide, and from there they decided to start RVs 4 MDs, which would help pair medical workers with RV owners who were willing to loan their vehicles to health care employees to live in while treating COVID-19 patients.

Megan Willig, a hospice nurse in Wooster, Ohio, was matched with Jeff and Sue Winterhalther-Decker through the group’s Facebook page. Willig said she made the difficult decision to self-isolate from her family because her son had previously been hospitalized with pneumonia and she did not want to risk bringing the virus home to him.

“I feel really blessed. I’ve been losing sleep over this whole thing, and I felt like it was my answered prayer,” Willig said.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Thursday that the state would be providing health care workers in the state with vouchers and stipends for no- or low-cost hotel rooms.

Other hotel chains, such as the Four Seasons in New York, have been providing free rooms to health care workers.

Some major companies are also pitching in to help give back to health care workers. Delta Airlines announced that it will donate more than 200,000 pounds of food to hospitals, food banks and other organizations across the globe. Meanwhile, Airbnb is allowing hosts to open their space to first responders who need a place close to their hospitals. The company said they would waive fees for the first 100,000 bookings made through the program.

"The thing that really stands out more than anything is just how a random act of kindness …how empowering that is," said MacKelvie of Feed the Fearless. "It's just one of the most powerful things that you can receive, but also give. It's unfortunate, but times like this remind us of that."