Street Talk: Celebrating unsung heroes

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With an additional 1 million school-age children, laid off workers and a growing number of families needing emergency food, Michigan’s seven regional food banks are doing essential work on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The list of heroic leaders who walk through the fire is inspiring — health care professionals, firefighters (and) law enforcement,” said Phil Knight, executive director of the Food Bank Council of Michigan. “I want to add our state’s food banks to this list of heroes. Serving all Michigan’s 83 counties, they always are on the front lines in the fight against food insecurity.”

As the full impact of the pandemic continues to emerge, more Michiganders find themselves turning to food banks for assistance. The Food Bank Council of Michigan and its members quickly responded to the immediate needs of school children when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered schools closed through April. Each day, they prepare for the escalating demand while facing a shortage of volunteers to sort and distribute essential food.

“The leaders and teams that make up the Food Bank Council of Michigan have not run into the fire; they live in the fire,” Knight said. “They are there every day, providing emergency food for our hungry neighbors. Perhaps, this is why food banks are rarely listed among heroic first responders. It’s because we are already there.”

All food banks have adopted mobile drive-thru systems that limit personal interaction while still distributing emergency food. Pallets of boxed food are set up, team members gather necessary information, and residents receive 30-40 pounds of nutritious food that equates to 35 to 40 meals per box.

“Food bankers are public servants who serve every day, all day, to fight against kids going to bed hungry and seniors who need to be protected from COVID-19 going too long without proper food. Let’s add these food bank leaders and teams who put their health at risk distributing emergency food during these crucial days to the growing list of America’s best,” Knight said.

Founded in 1984, the Food Bank Council of Michigan was created to implement a unified strategy to address and alleviate hunger statewide. FBCM works with its regional food banks and over 2,800 hunger relief agencies, private companies, farmers, state and federal officials, and other allies to make sure no Michigander goes without food.

Those who wish to donate to the organization can call the Food Bank Council of Michigan at (517) 485-1202 or visit fbcmich.org/covid-19.

Robot rescue

Holt High School biology teacher Lisa Weise has sparked a statewide movement by public educators to equip Michigan’s front-line health care workers with protective equipment as they treat patients infected with coronavirus (COVID-19).

Weise’s sister-in-law, a nurse at a metro Detroit hospital, initially asked if Weise’s robotics team could design a face shield to protect those treating infected patients.

“As we were talking, it occurred to me another need was for goggles, and I thought, ‘I already have those,’” said Weise, a Michigan Education Association member and 2004 Michigan Science Teacher of the Year. “I could just give those to people.”

Weise obtained 100 pairs of goggles from her classroom. She stopped short of mailing them when she realized about 600 other First Robotics teams across Michigan also could contribute to the cause.

“They donated goggles, then went a step further and organized a collection and gave a bunch more goggles to the hospital,” she said. “Now I’m trying to find other teams to do the same thing, because every team can be doing this right now. Everyone I’ve talked to has said, ‘Yes, certainly we’ll help. We’ve got it.’ People want to help.”

Ben Shoemaker, an MEA member and robotics coach in Mason Public Schools, was one of the first to answer the call. Shoemaker, who has access to 3D printers he brought home prior to the statewide closure of school buildings, is using the machinery to print face shields for health care workers.

Shoemaker then reached out to other robotics coaches who also had access to 3D printers.

“First Robotics is a big problem-solving organization,” the 18-year science and technology teacher said. “It’s an open network for people to communicate, and we always do, so it was natural for people to want to work together and solve problems.”

Shoemaker’s student leadership team also is providing virtual company to local senior citizens.

“We’re taking the tablets we have for scouting and trying to get those delivered to some senior centers in the area so kids can be virtual pen-pals with seniors who are shut in and might not have visitors,” he said.

These combined efforts return a welcome sense of mission and purpose while school buildings are closed, Weise and Shoemaker said.

“I think the hardest thing for us as educators is having the drive to get kids to a certain point and all of a sudden you’re told, ‘Well, you’re not going to get to do that for a while,’ and it just takes your sails away,” Shoemaker said.

“This project has provided a welcome opportunity for robotics coaches and students to utilize their skills and knowledge to lend a helping hand to those risking their lives to help keep our communities safe,” Weise said.

Show of hands

Distillers across the state are pivoting toward hand sanitizer production in response to COVID-19.

Great Lakes Wine & Spirits recently delivered eight gallons of hand sanitizer to Children and Family Services in Kalamazoo and Goodwill Industries in Traverse City. The hand sanitizer was produced by one of GLWAS’ suppliers, Detroit City Distilling.

“All of us at Great Lakes Wine & Spirits are proud to work hand-in-hand with Detroit City Distilling to deliver hand sanitizer to health care professionals on the front lines battling COVID-19,” said Lewis Cooper III, co-CEO of GLWAS.

“Our hospitals, medical providers and organizations helping those in need are in desperate need of equipment, including hand sanitizer, and we’re happy to step up and help meet this urgent need.”

Hand sanitizer has been shown to kill the coronavirus and help stop the spread of COVID-19 when soap and water aren’t available. Distillers across the state, including Detroit City Distilling, have responded by pivoting to producing hand sanitizer, which is made up of at least 60% alcohol.

“This is another example of Michigan’s alcohol industry stepping up when times are tough,” said Syd Ross, co-CEO of GLWAS. “If we all work together and avoid going out in public, practice social distancing and wash our hands, we can help stop the spread of this deadly virus.”

Last week, GLWAS also announced it would purchase $250,000 in takeout meals from restaurants across the state with the goal of providing take-home meals for its employees twice a week.

“I want to thank everyone at GLWAS for going above and beyond during this time of need, whether it’s our warehouse employees or delivery drivers ensuring store shelves remained stocked or our leadership team for helping restaurants in the communities we call home,” Cooper said.

Under the executive order issued March 23, Michigan’s beer, wine and spirits distributors will continue their operations. Many alcohol distributors also distribute water, soft drinks and juice, providing an essential service to retailers across the state.

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