They come wearing scrubs and masks after long shifts at hospitals. Some are coming off an ambulance shift.
As they pick up their children from YMCA Pandemic Child Care Centers across Hamilton County, these parents are stressed and weary. They’re also suddenly smiling as, along with their children, they are picking up dinner – prepared packaged, and purchased to feed their whole family.
The smile-maker is called the Community Heroes Family Dinner Project – conceived by the Rotary Club of Cincinnati to make life a little easier for those essential workers during the COVID-19 health crisis.
The Rotary Foundation – the philanthropic arm of the Rotary Club of Cincinnati – is managing and funding the project. The Foundation buys meals from local restaurants, which then deliver them to the eight YMCA pandemic child care centers in Hamilton County. When parents pick up their children, they also pick up a hearty meal for the whole family.
The project gives families more time together also and supports local restaurants and their workers, said John Fahrmeier of Anderson Township, president of the Rotary Foundation of Cincinnati.
The Foundation expects to spend more than $90,000 on the program that started on April 6 and runs through May 1.
In its first week, the Foundation provided over 1400 meals for 133 families. Meals range from roast pork with parsley potatoes and green beans to fried chicken, pizza, pastas, meatloaf and vegetarian options.
Rotary volunteers coordinate with restaurants near the various YMCAs. The project budget is $10 per meal and the Rotary adds a $2 tip per meal for the workers.
“I love that it isn’t just the children and the families that we are helping, it is the restaurants and the workers,” said Nancy Riesz, Rotary Club board member who is one of the restaurant recruiters and liaisons for the program. Riesz, of North Bend, coordinates about 50 dinners a day for families at the Nippert Gamble YMCA in Western Hills. “We have a different restaurant for each day,” said Riesz. “I was concerned because some of the restaurants are a little higher priced,” she said. But that hasn’t been a problem. “One owner told me to not look at the prices, just tell him what I wanted.”
Several restaurants are adding desserts as special gifts from the restaurant. “The owner of one restaurant told me it really energized his staff. They were cooking with a sense of mission.”
Rachel Appenfelder, owner/manager of Dunlap Café in Over the Rhine, is providing dinners for families at the Carl H. Lindner YMCA in the West End on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays. “First responders have a special place in my heart,” said Appenfelder. “This is a good way to give back to the community and it’s helping us, too. Last Tuesday, the Rotary dinners were pretty much the only business we had for the day,” she said. Appelfelder decorates the meal bags with hearts and smiley faces and talks with some of the families when she delivers the meals. “I ask what they like,” she said. “We’re trying to do a comfort meal at the end of the day, and something the kids will eat. Macaroni and cheese is a kid favorite.” On Monday she paired mac & cheese with barbequed chicken and a dessert.
Matt Huesman, owner of Maury’s Tiny Cove Steakhouse in Western Hills, called the dinner project “an opportunity to pay it forward.” “Maury’s has always been a community-driven restaurant,” he said. “These meals are going to people who are serving others. We like being involved.”
Sara Overstake, group vice president of the YMCA of Greater Cincinnati, is coordinating the program on the YMCA side. “These dinners through the Rotary Foundation are a great way to acknowledge that, yes, these people working at the hospitals and labs and other essential jobs in this pandemic are heroes,” she said. “This is not only a convenience. Some of these families are making minimum wage or very low wages. A good family dinner every night makes a huge difference.”
Malachi Henderson of West Price Hill has a 9-year-old daughter. “I’m considered an essential worker,” he said. “But I don’t make that much money. Having those dinners is a Godsend. Not only does it help spread what groceries we have at the house, but it keeps me from having to cook when I get home and having to go to the grocery so much. I have more time with my daughter.”
The Rotary has been getting thank-you notes from parents.
“Providing meals to my family during the critical time in our history takes a ton of stress off my shoulders,” wrote a mother and medical worker from East Walnut Hills.
“As my caseload rises to heights I hope I never see again due to COVID-19, I can take one more thing off my to-do list . . . I can now spend extra time with my children who are also feeling the effects of isolation and overall unease.”
Carrie King of the Carl H. Lindner YMCA in the West End said time is one of the greatest gifts these families can get.
“Our families were taken aback when I told them about the program,” said King,
When I told one mom, she got tears in her eyes. She said ‘You mean you can give me dinner every night for my kids?”
After the first week, the mom told King “I don’t know where we would be without you.”