‘We’re just trying to fill the void, ease the pain:’ Across Lancaster, Pa., volunteers come together amid COVID-19 shutdowns

Andre Cole, Tony Bosley of Lancaster restaurant, Blazin-J. deliver supplies | Photo by Nicole Vasquez

(Editor’s Note: The author also handles communications for the Lancaster LGBTQ+ Coalition)

By Lauren Manelius

LANCASTER, Pa. — Nicole Vasquez and her husband, Jabron Taylor — owners of Blazin J’s, a Lancaster restaurant specializing in chicken dishes — were notifying customers that they’re still offering delivery and takeout, when they recognized another need they could fulfill for a community reeling from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The couple began handing out toilet paper and bottled water from the restaurant last Wednesday for free, regardless of whether visitors purchased food. They put out the word on social media, and within 40 minutes, distributed it all. 

Vasquez and her husband are among dozens of individuals and groups in Lancaster city finding ways to support their vulnerable neighbors, even as they struggle themselves with the economic repercussions of state government-ordered business closures and urges to stay at home and practice social distancing.

“We didn’t see anything happening, so we took it upon ourselves to go out and give to people,” Vasquez told the Capital-Star. “Every single one of our employees wanted to give back.”

On Saturday, after ordering three more skids of bottled water and toilet paper — as much as they could fit into the restaurant, says Vasquez — the couple brought along several employees and handed it out to residents at two senior living facilities in downtown Lancaster, Farnum Street East and Church Street Towers. 

“People were crying,” says Vasquez. “They can’t leave their homes. Police officers came in later to thank us.” She estimates that so far they have given away about 600 cases of water, with 24 bottles to a case, and about 500 rolls of toilet paper. Residents who live near the restaurant have also begun donating their own surplus goods for employees to distribute.

Volunteers load supplies at the Crispus Attucks Community Center in Lancaster, Pa. | Photo by Marquis Lupton

Crispus Attucks Community Center has ramped up two of its regular services, the food bank and the CA Cafe, says program coordinator Marquis Lupton.

The food bank is usually open every second and fourth Wednesday, and any surplus stock is given to other local food banks. But as other food banks shut down, and more people face shortages due to unemployment, they’re opening it on the 1st and 3rd Wednesdays, as well.

Lupton explained to the Capital-Star that other food banks are shutting down because they’re attached to churches, which are closed under the state order. Crispus Attucks has been able to stay open because it’s part of the Community Action Program, which is deemed an essential business.

At last week’s food bank, Crispus Attucks volunteers had prepared 150 boxes of food. The food bank was supposed to be open from 2-5 p.m., but they ran out of boxes after 45 minutes.

“The line was out the door, down the street, and around the corner. And to keep ourselves and them safe, we only had five people come in at a time,” Lupton told the Capital-Star. “They were instructed to get their box and head right back outside, like a conveyer belt. It was a beautiful system and it was amazing to see, especially in the short amount of time we had to do it.” 

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The CA Cafe is open from 11 a.m. to noon every Tuesday and Thursday and provides free nutritious meals in its dining area to people in the community. According to Lupton, attendees are mostly comprised of homeless people and the working poor, especially those who work 2nd and 3rd shift jobs.

The coronavirus has caused the cafe to pivot to serving only grab-and-go lunches. 

“Typically we would get about 30-40 people coming in each day, now we are up to about 100,” Lupton said. Many of the new attendees have been families and teenagers. Some of the teens, he noted, are living with grandparents who are advised to avoid the grocery store, leading their households to become short on food.

“Right now,” he said, “We’re just trying to fill the void, ease the pain.”

Focused on providing reliable information

Eliza Booth, an organizer for advocacy group Lancaster Stands Up, says it’s focusing its efforts on providing resources and reliable information to the community.

“We just kind of instinctively went back to our roots. When we started it was in reaction to things in our community, people were in crisis. We are taking the approach we did then. Coronavirus is another unique threat,” Booth said.

Organizers began a Google Doc of local aid being offered and distributed the list among its hundreds of members and thousands of social media followers, urging them to share it.

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The continuously-updated document groups information into categories such as health care, free meals, and unemployment assistance, including resources for undocumented residents.

The organization is also working with Melanie Yoder, a local therapist, to conduct a four-part virtual seminar on what people can do to maintain their mental health while coping with isolation. Sessions will begin this Sunday, March 29 at 2 p.m. and repeat each Sunday through April 19. Lancaster Stands Up will create a Facebook event for each session.

“If they’re well received we’ll keep them going,” Booth told the Capital-Star. “We want to offer a space for people to be able to talk with other people about their challenges and struggles because of the quarantine.”

The local music scene does its part

Local musicians are also taking to virtual sessions to provide solace and entertainment.

“One day I was a full time performing bar musician, and the next day that job was no longer available,”  musician Leo DiSanto, who performs solo and as a member of the band Vinegar Creek Constituency, said. “So given the skill set and tools that I have, going online was the only thing I could really think of.” 

DiSanto is using Facebook Live to broadcast performances from his home. 

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“People are connecting with these shows in a really personal way. They’re saying it means a lot to them,” DiSanto said. “It’s not just watching a video of someone playing songs. People are interacting with each other and me in the comments, catching up, putting in requests. Close friends and strangers all over the world, people from numerous states and countries call out their locations. I’m getting larger audiences than I thought I would.”

Among those requests is a song DiSanto wrote about the quarantine, “The Social Distancing Rag.”

Nick Reiner, who performs around Lancaster as DJ Salinger, has also turned to virtual shows. 

He’s moved two of his popular regular events — Wax On Wednesdays is held at Tellus360, a popular downtown restaurant and performance venue, and features low-key vinyl records, while #MAJORVIBES is a dance party typically hosted by The Village, a local nightclub — onto the streaming platform Twitch.

“People are really grateful to be able to tune into something and feel connected,” Reiner said. “You can see who else is there, people can comment, and I can see that live and reply. It’s been positive all around. We can actually ‘meet’ in public again. It’s weird, strange for everyone. My whole job is bringing people together.” 

Michael Sirianni had just started a new job as manager of Alexander Coffee Bar when it was forced to temporarily close because of COVID-19. His thoughts turned to the community’s small business owners.

“I saw people posting on Facebook about selling gift cards and got an idea, so I put it out there. Rather than having to go to each retailer or restaurant’s website, if folks would organize this on one website, would you be interested?” Sirianni, told the Capital-Star. “In 15 minutes, at least eight people had messaged me, so I put out another post. Do I know any web designers willing to donate time to build it? It took about 30 minutes before Dana reached out.”

Dana Robertson and Chris Breimhurst are the married co-founders of Pennant Creatives, a web and print design agency in Lancaster. 

“We’d been looking for a way to add our strengths and be there for our fellow small business owners,” Robertson said. “This was something we could do.”

The trio built the website and spread the word in a little over 24 hours. At www.Lanc.care, any locally-owned small business in Lancaster County can share information about the modified services they’re offering. As of March 26, 147 businesses have posted listings among four categories: food, retail, service, or other. 

Offerings come in the form of gift cards, food carryout and/or delivery, and discounts. Among the shops and restaurants are service providers who have been forced to shut down normal operations, such as auto body shops and massage therapists. Lancaster VR Lounge, a virtual reality arcade that typically hosts gatherings such as birthday parties and team-building events, is offering 10% off future reservations under the code “COVIDSUCKS.”

After hearing about face mask shortages at local medical centers, the Lancaster LGBTQ+ Coalition organized a “Mask-Off.” People are asked to sew cloth face masks and drop them off at the Coalition’s office or arrange for a pick-up. The Coalition is offering incentives, including $5 for every 10 face masks donated. The masks will be distributed to health centers and vulnerable populations around Lancaster. 

Correspondent Lauren Manelius covers Lancaster County and its suburbs for the Capital-Star.