A Bethany woman's simple idea to deliver a few boxes of pizza to her local hospital's emergency room in March has grown into a movement — and a full-time job.
Aishwarya Sreenivasan worked as a biomedical researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital nine years ago before moving to the Portland area and taking a break from work to raise her kids.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, she knew the stress healthcare workers would experience, because she had seen it during the H1N1 flu outbreak in 2009.
On March 31, she reached out to a few friends on social media to see if they wanted to help buy pizza for ER workers at Kaiser Permanente Westside Medical Center in Hillsboro, where the first confirmed patient with COVID-19 in Oregon received treatment.
"My friends had passed this to their friends, and then to theirs," Sreenivasan said. "Within two hours, I had 200 people calling me and asking me how they can contribute. This was kind of overwhelming. I didn't expect that."
She had never coordinated a large donation before, and she didn't know how to manage it. One of her friends, Puja Kumari, helped collect the funds, and another friend, Sandhi Bhide, who had work experience with nonprofits, helped with logistics.
After the first successful donation, more and more people connected with the initial group on social media wanted to keep it going.
Since March, Sreenivasan and other volunteers have coordinated the delivery of more than 10,000 meals to hospital workers throughout the Portland area and at other hospitals as far away as Salem and Astoria.
Some weeks, she said, she has put in 60 hours coordinating donations. Her work has been written about multiple times in local media, including stories published by the nonprofit Women in Science PDX and The Immigrant Story.
"Sometimes the nurses and the doctors call and thank us," Sreenivasan said. "The feeling that they're appreciated is what keeps them going. These people are risking their lives every single day. They're risking their families. They're like warriors."
As the number of people wanting to donate grew, Sreenivasan gained the help of the Portland-based nonprofit Indian Cultural Association, which started collecting smaller donations for the initiative. Sreenivasan told people and groups wanting to give larger amounts of money to donate directly to a restaurant they want to support, and she would coordinate delivering the food to a hospital.
She's now connected to administrators at all the major hospital systems in the area, with whom she coordinates food donations almost every day, sometimes multiple donations per day.
When a donation is confirmed, a volunteer picks up the packaged meals and drops them off at a hospital, and hospital employees take the food without any contact, Sreenivasan said.
She said it allows people who know their favorite restaurants are suffering from coronavirus-related restrictions to support them and support health care workers on the frontlines of the pandemic.
More than 25 restaurants have participated, and, coincidentally, most of the restaurant owners have been women.
Brandy Braun, who owns Pepper's Mexican Grill in Hillsboro, has been one of the most frequent participants, Sreenivasan said.
Braun said Pepper's didn't do a lot of takeout orders before the pandemic, but the restaurant was lucky to have a large group of regular customers who have continued orders, including hospital donations. The donations have included up to 80 meals, typically burritos, rice and beans, Braun said.
The donation orders are discounted so they don't compare to overall revenue before the pandemic, but it was important for the restaurant to support healthcare workers, Braun said.
"They're working hard — they deserve it," Braun said.
Every time Sreenivasan has done an order she's wondered if it will be the last, she said.
She and her volunteers have never sought donations. But the network they've created keeps the donations coming.
Recently, donations have started to decrease, Sreenivasan said, speculating the decline is related to counties reopening.
But as cases of COVID-19 hit record highs across the region, Sreenivasan says it's even more important now.
She said the experience has been a learning experience for her, and it has renewed her faith in her community.
"The one nice thing this pandemic has brought out is the humanity in people," Sreenivasan said. "It has shown me that when there is a crisis, absolute strangers will come together and try to do something good."
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