By Felicia Ho
Last Wednesday, I had the opportunity to sit down (on Zoom) with Liz Bernich and Gina McGuire, the two founders of the Front Line Appreciation Group (FLAG). As a fellow New Jerseyan myself, it was amazing to hear how a local effort sprouting from the two neighboring towns of Chatham, New Jersey and Madison, New Jersey has grown to become a nationwide movement focused on keeping frontline healthcare workers fed and local restaurants in business. Recently, they were featured in the #Jersey4Jersey fundraising concert for the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund and other prominent news channels in recognition for their important work.
Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Felicia: Can you speak a little bit about how FLAG started?
Liz: I was inspired by a group on Long Island that was arranging meals for one of the big hospitals in my hometown. Having an understanding of the impact quarantining would have on our local businesses, I thought it made a lot of sense to push as much money as we could towards those businesses, but also keep the frontlines fueled as well. I put a quick note out onto our Chatham community Facebook group to see if people would want to join. The interest was amazing, and Gina and I connected the next day. She knew that Madison would be on this kind of boat just as quickly as us in Chatham, so we linked up. The two towns are both served by Morristown Hospital, and our communities have a lot of similarities.
The whole idea of the organization is to support the frontlines. They're under a lot of stress; most of them are in a position where they can't leave their unit for their 12 hour shift.
There are obviously less restaurant options, less ways to refresh a little bit during the day. We give them one less thing for them to worry about during or before their shift - something to take off their plate. At the same time, we know that businesses are losing out at this moment. This would normally be a big catering season, a big party season and celebrations between graduations, Mother's Day, confirmations... anything and everything under the sun. We're effectively replacing that for them. We are sending over 700 meals per day to the hospital, and with that kind of quantity to our local restaurants on a daily basis we're pushing a lot of money right back to the community.
Gina: In addition to the meals and taking something off of their plate, I think the added bonus is really that these frontline workers feel an overwhelming amount of support from the community and an amount of appreciation from the community which might help keep them going.
Hopefully, we are also lifting their spirits and making them feel buoyed by all the support and appreciation and love that we're sending.
It also gives the community a feeling of being involved and giving back. It's a win win all around. I've noticed that a lot of people within the communities have also become a little bit more connected with their community and connected with new people. I mean the perfect example is Gina and I never knew each other before this whole thing started. We now have this relationship and this partnership that's been amazing, and I think that other people are having similar experiences. Our sewing angels group has been really closely knit. You have this whole community of people on social media, and all these ideas have been bouncing around. People find new ways to contribute, whether it is fuel boxes or selling masks or whatever their interest. We have one person who's making the potted plant arrangements and donating to us. Everybody's kind of chipping in and making their spin on how can I get involved in my way. It's definitely a huge team effort by the two towns. These two towns are amazing, and we couldn't be more grateful for everybody just jumping on board right from the beginning, no questions asked.
Felicia: How have you seen FLAG's impact expand to beyond your own communities?
Gina: It just kind of snowballed in the way, a very organic way. We had a milestone of reaching 100 chapters, as of yesterday, I believe. The more the merrier, but it certainly was not an intentional thing from the beginning.
Liz: I remember seeing someone post: Hey, you know, we know these two women in our towns are putting this effort together. What an amazing thing. The next thing you know, Scottsdale, Arizona was our next chapter. It was just one person from Chatham, NJ who knew someone in Scottsdale, and said "I put the bug in my friend's ear." Then, we had a Summit, New Jersey chapter, and part of it was, people were asking, are you also covering Overlook? Are you also covering St. Barnabas?
There's only one ground rule and that is to always make sure you keep your mission - that you're staying super transparent and focused on the end goal which is getting our restaurants supported and our front lines fueled and loved.
It makes sense for people who are connected in their towns to to handle whatever that mission is.
Felicia: Do you continue to see feeding frontline workers and supporting local restaurants as your primary goal?
Gina: We have a myriad of people who qualify as frontline workers. We're sending lunch and dinner daily to the hospital for those people who are literally front front liners, but then for grocery workers and other essential workers, we can send little fuel packs. They're basically little snack packs, a little care package of sorts. But the best thing about it is the outside.
It is decorated with appreciative messages: "you know you can do it! you're a hero! thank you!" I really think that that alone is the gift to these people.
We want them to know that we appreciate them just as much, and we're thinking of them as well. This idea of the fuel boxes came from a woman in Madison, NJ who came to us and said, I made these fuel boxes - can you get them out to people on site? - of course, we said. This is a great way for families to jump in and get involved. Again, we're leaning on chapter leaders. Their ideas just build us up higher and higher.
Liz: I also think there is still a real significant need to keep restaurants running. We know food prices have gone up, supply chains are stressed, and workers are stressed coming to work, but having a project to focus on has given a lot of them a lift in and of itself. Their rent payments are still due, the profit margins in restaurants are slim, and when you shut everything down for a month or two, that can end the lifeline of that business all together. While we're under quarantine until at least till May 15, the support is going to have to go all the way through then if we can get it to stretch with the funding that we have. We know the hospitals are not going to be back to normal in a month. When we think about the match of helping the restaurants and helping the front lines, it's at least another month, honestly.
Felicia: How can people get involved?
Liz: We could still use donations, we could still use new chapters, and we love the fuel boxes. Chapter leaders have their own Facebook group, which has really been nice with sharing ideas and applying them to their own communities. We're in 26 states but that leaves 24 open. There are still a lot of positive possibilities, even in the states that we're in. We have an interactive map on our website, flag2020.org, which will show where we are. Even if there is a chapter in the area, reach out to the leaders of that chapter and see if there's a way that you could help, and volunteer.
We also suggest just simply being thankful and grateful and saying thank you to the people who are on the front line.
That might be at the grocery store - simply saying thank you for being here today and for putting yourself out there on daily basis for us to keep us going.