As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Vassar alumnae/i and students are finding ways to help some of our most vulnerable citizens and support those on the front lines who are fighting the outbreak.
- Siena Chiang ’11 and Yasmin Roberti ’11 are volunteering their time to “Off Their Plate,” an initiative launched this spring by young professionals and students. They are collaborating with restaurant owners in nine cities to keep food service workers employed feeding doctors, nurses, and other frontline hospital workers who are taking care of COVID-19 patients.
- In Atlanta, Natalie Keng ’90 is part of a cohort of volunteers serving on the Community Outreach Committee of a task force established by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to address issues triggered by the outbreak in the state.
- As she completes her Vassar education at her home in New Jersey, Elizabeth Rotolo ’20 is coordinating an all-volunteer effort to deliver groceries and prescription drugs to senior citizens in 10 communities.
- Vassar Student Association President Carlos Espina ’20 is raising funds and delivering board games and other supplies to immigrant families in neighborhoods in his hometown of College Station, TX.
Off Their Plate Brings Food and Jobs to 9 Cities
Siena Chiang, a product manager at PillPack, a digital pharmacy that makes managing multiple medications easier, was an early volunteer for Off Their Plate. Founded in mid-March by Harvard Medical School student Natalie Guo, the organization works with restaurant owners to deliver meals to hospitals in Boston, New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Seattle, and Washington, DC.
Off Their Plate’s goal is to serve meals to healthcare workers while providing economic relief to food service workers.
Chiang said she joined the group about a week after it was founded when she learned about Guo’s idea from Cambridge restaurant owner Tracy Chang, a mutual friend and OTP launch partner. “Tracy got in touch with me and explained that many hospitals were closing their cafeterias, leaving staff without food options,” Chiang said. “At the same time, restaurants were forced to lay off their teams. Tracy and Natalie had figured out how to provide relief to both frontline communities.” The organization served its first meals at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston on March 22 and by mid-April had delivered more than 23,000 meals to 86 healthcare sites and raised more than $2 million.
Chiang, who is leading OTP’s communications and internal operations, said she and her fellow volunteers are using their backgrounds in the business, healthcare, and restaurant fields to make an impact in a sustainable way and build “deep, ongoing relationships” with hospital and restaurant teams. “There are now about 40 of us on the central team, and 120 across all our cities,” she said. “There is a lead restaurant in each city to bring on our partners and work with them to ensure the teams are safe while they prepare meals. It’s been inspiring to see what a team of ego-less people can accomplish when all they want to do is help in a crisis.”
Yasmin Roberti, who has been in the food and agriculture business since she and Chiang graduated from Vassar together in 2011, helped launch the Philadelphia arm of Off Their Plate at the start of April. She was managing a new Israeli bakery in Philadelphia when the outbreak began and had established relationships in the restaurant industry in Philadelphia since she began working there in 2013.
“I had been furloughed from my job and had a lot of free time and wanted to get more involved, so I made some connections,” Roberti said.
She and others who joined Off Their Plate in Philadelphia began facilitating the delivery of food to two healthcare facilities in mid-April with a goal of serving at least 900 meals a week by the end of the month. “It’s been hard work, but it’s also been rewarding,” Roberti said. “It’s been nice to be able to channel my skill set for people who really need it right now.”
Off Their Plate has worked with experts in food preparation and public health to create COVID-specific standards for food safety. And they have partnered with World Central Kitchen, a national organization that provides meals for people in crisis headed by famed chef José Andrés. World Central Kitchen is also acting as the organization’s fiscal sponsor and fund-raising arm.
Chiang said she is inspired by many stories of kindness and sacrifice since she joined Off Their Plate. “A group of nurses we served meals to in Boston raised money for us to provide meals to two of New York City’s hardest hit emergency rooms,” Chiang said. “They remembered that nurses from New York had sent food and messages of support (in 2013) after the bombing at the Boston Marathon and they wanted to pay the kindness forward,” Chiang said.
Georgia Task Force Ensures Aid Is Inclusive
Natalie Keng, who was born and raised in Smyrna, GA, moved back to her hometown about a decade ago. She is a marketing consultant, entrepreneur, and founder of Chinese Southern Belle, a food and culture company based in Atlanta.
Keng was one of 14 Georgians named to the Community Outreach Committee of Gov. Kemp’s COVID-19 Task Force. She was recruited by Task Force Co-Chair and friend Bernice King, the youngest daughter of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Bernice reached out to me knowing my background as a small business owner and my work in public policy and inclusion and equity,” she said.
Keng earned a master’s degree in social policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and served as a local government official in Massachusetts before returning to Atlanta. She said she believed her educational background as well as her work in both the public and private sectors would enable her to make the necessary connections with Georgians of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds as a member of the task force. “Because of all the hats I’ve worn in my life, my network is pretty broad and pretty unique,” Keng said. “Our mission on the task force is to act as the ears and eyes on the ground, to identify the needs and gaps and be a two-way conduit for the governor and our state’s diverse communities.”
Keng said she feared some Georgia business leaders and elected officials are opening the economy there prematurely. “If we’re moving ahead without adequate testing and adequate supplies [of protective equipment], I have some serious concerns,” she said. “Our commitment is to the governor and the people of Georgia and finding how best to help each other regardless of political affiliation, so we’re doing our best to promote informed communication,” she said. “We fully understand the need to get back to work but we also want to ensure the safety of workers and customers.”
As an Asian American who has worked with the National Conference for Community and Justice and served on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Keng says she also plans to voice her concerns about the rise of bigotry, harassment, and xenophobia that has occurred since the start of the pandemic. “Asian Americans have always carried the stigma of being ‘foreigners,’ but the rhetoric has been exacerbated by this crisis,” she said. “It has disproportionately hit those who are socioeconomically most vulnerable and communities of color. COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate, and neither should we.”
A Fund—and some Fun!—for Immigrant Children in Texas
Carlos Espina got to know many immigrant families in Bryan and College Station, TX, three years ago when he founded a soccer and education program for immigrant children. He spent Spring Break this year collecting and delivering board games, puzzles, and art supplies to many of the same families, as well as some others, and he has since launched a fund drive for them.
While Espina was resuming his classes via distance learning from his home, local schools in his community were shutting down. “I had gotten to know many families through my soccer program,” he said, “so when the local schools closed down, I realized these children would need things to do.”
As the crisis continued and many of the immigrants lost their jobs, Espina decided to launch a fund-raising campaign. “Many of these families are undocumented and are not receiving any help from the government, so I knew they needed help,” Espina said. He solicited donations from friends in his community and at Vassar and said he’s been overwhelmed by the support. He says, in addition to his friends some members of Vassar’s top administration and some of his professors have made donations. “I’ve been delivering the money to the families in $100 amounts,” he reports.
Espina said his original goal was $5,000 but by mid-April he had already received $10,500. “I know the families can really use the money, but this is also a way to let them know that a lot of people care about them,” he said.
New Jersey Seniors Gain Many Helping Hands
Elizabeth “Liz” Rotolo, of Lebanon Township, NJ, said she hatched the idea for delivering food and prescription drugs to seniors during Vassar’s Spring Break after she and her mother visited her own grandparents, who live about 25 miles from their home. “Mom and I were talking about how lucky we were to be living so close to them so we could bring them what they need,” she said, “and I realized there were a lot of seniors who didn’t have that kind of support.”
Rotolo discussed her idea with a high school friend, Jenna Ferreira, who is completing her senior year at the University of Miami and was also at home taking her courses through distance learning. They spread the word about their idea to local churches and food pantries and collected a substantial number of names of elderly customers at the local ShopRite supermarket.
As Rotolo began fielding calls from seniors who said they needed such a service, she and Ferreira recruited volunteers through Facebook and other social media outlets to help pick up the groceries and prescription drugs and make the deliveries. “We delivered our first order March 22, and by the 25th we were starting to get a lot more calls,” Rotolo said. “At first, most of our volunteers were people our age that we knew from high school, but a lot of people we didn’t know at all have joined the group.”
She said she often receives phone calls from those her volunteers serve. “One woman called in tears to say thank you, and I heard from a man the other day who is about to turn 100 years old,” Rotolo said.
She is busy keeping up with her work for her final Vassar semester, but says “there’s still time to do this, and I think it’s something others could do if their town doesn’t have a service like this. We found out a lot of people need it.”