While COVID-19 has hindered the normal operations of businesses and institutions across the country, many leaders have quickly shifted their attention from “How can we continue to operate?” to “What can we do to help?”
With this perspective, several local businesses have found innovative ways to utilize their existing resources to give back to the Syracuse community. Many of these efforts involve converting facilities and production, along with facilitating donations to those in need.
As demand for personal protective equipment (PPE), such as face masks, and other hygienic essentials like hand sanitizer have sky-rocketed, local businesses have found ways to shift their operations to help meet this need. One local 3D printing company founded by two Syracuse alum, Budmen Industries, began manufacturing masks in a basement operation. To hear more about their story, check out this podcast from the Syracuse University alumni series ‘Cuse Conversations.
As requests for face masks continued to flood in, others became aware of the need and wanted to help. The Greater Syracuse Soundstage was able to assist. Jeremy Garelick, owner of the production company American High, gathered a team of 50 volunteers and went from making movies to churning out masks for healthcare workers globally.
Likewise, Ben Reilley, founder of Life of Reilley distillery in Cazenovia, New York, discovered the growing need for essentials. Although he sold his distillery two years ago, he received a call inquiring about distilling in the area, as states were permitting distilleries to manufacture hand sanitizer since hospitals were running out. Within hours, Reilly made several calls and was able to get seven local distilleries on board.
“Since then, we have produced thousands of gallons for hospitals, businesses and individuals, while developing long term relationships which will prevent a crisis in the future, as this is a need that won’t be going away,” says Reilley. Moreover, distilleries are working on additional projects such as taking expired beer and distilling it into whiskey, which can then be converted into hand sanitizer.
In reflecting on this experience, Reilley says, “Taking a request and being able to make something happen has been extremely rewarding.” He also mentions that if anyone in the community feels that they can assist, they are encouraged to reach out.
While healthcare supplies remain a dire need, another essential is at the forefront of community attention—food. Although food banks are still in operation, there remain concerns about how individuals can easily and safely access what they need, along with the limitation of free meals as many relied on those provided by institutions that are now shut down.
To address this, schools in the Central New York area created plans to provide meals to students. For example, the Syracuse City School District has created a plan so that families do not have to worry about the absence of meals served in schools, along with other things.
“Under the Executive Orders from the Governor, school districts are required to provide instructional continuity, meals to students and a plan for providing daycare to first responders and medical staff for the duration of the closure,” explains Suzanne Slack, CFO at the Syracuse City School District.
“The Syracuse City School District is a Community Eligibility School District, which means we receive federal funds to support providing all of our students with free breakfast and free lunch during the school year and summer school,” Slack shares. “Syracuse qualifies for this funding because the percentage of students living in poverty who otherwise qualify for a Free or Reduced Price Lunch (FRPL) is high.”
In the first few weeks, meals prepared by District food service staff were provided five days a week with extra on Friday to cover the weekend. Distribution was then altered to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, giving enough for two days of breakfast and lunch with extra still on Friday, which effectively increased the number of meals provided while limiting exposure. Many school buildings staff and community agency volunteers are at each site to help distribute the meals.
“We have 29 sites across the city where students or parents can come to pick up food and our yellow school bus provider, First Student, is assisting with delivering meals to those who are unable to come to one of the sites,” Slack continues. “In addition, our teaching staff is providing continued instruction to students through remote online instruction, recorded programming on WCNY, phone calls and by sending packets of materials to their students. School districts, in general, are not set up to operate this way so making this happen in a short period of time is due to the herculean efforts of our teachers, support staff and administrators.”
Local restaurants have also taken the initiative to transform their operations quickly in order to provide food. Lauren Monforte, co-owner of Beer Belly Deli, took this to heart as the Westcott community was impacted. “When the shutdown started, I just wanted to use the kitchen to help put meals out for people in need,” she says. With Syracuse professor David Knapp, the two created the initiative Community Plates.
“In the beginning, we didn’t have a plan, as well as with the other charities we contacted, so this was put together on the fly,” Monforte explains. They figured it was easier to supplement, and soon partnered with the Southwest Community Center, which was already distributing food to those in need, along with Salt City Market whose 501c3 status allows them to raise money.
Once the restaurant shut down, the plan was to order food at cost and put out prepackaged meals cooked the night before to be reheated. Production moved to the Southwest center, and Beer Belly staff was trained to work in the kitchen there Monday through Friday, putting out 300 meals a day. While this was initially effective, increased social distancing requirements made distribution more difficult. “Anytime you try to do something in this reality, you run into a roadblock,” Monforte says.
Despite this, Professor Knapp and Monforte were able to continue their mission. Now working with local community centers, they can safely distribute meals across the city. While respecting social distancing by limiting contact, Community Plates will still hand out meals individually/per family if need be. Currently, every $100 donation provides 67 meals and about 2.5 hours of employment. They are accepting donations from the community to help.
In times of crisis, close-knit communities like Syracuse band together through continued support. “It’s about matching peoples’ needs with peoples’ resources in an untraditional way,” as Monforte says, reflecting on how businesses and other institutions take a shared loss and transform it into a positive effort.
The Syracuse community has banned together. Whitman invites you to share how other local companies are pitching in to help the community in the comments below.