If Stephanie Schragger ’93 wasn’t sure that Brooklyn Cares, her meals-for-medical-frontliners collaborative, was making an impact during the COVID-19 crisis, a recent food delivery to SUNY Downstate/University Hospital Brooklyn erased any doubts. A driver from Purslane, a catering company in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn, arrived almost an hour early with a banquet of delicious meals to feed the hardworking hospital staff. Typically, a medical student comes outside to receive the packages, so the driver was surprised when a slightly older, more commanding gentleman came outside to meet him. It was the hospital’s chief resident in inpatient medicine.
The medical students, physicians and other hospital staffers were too busy at the time, working to treat patients. But the chief resident dropped what he was doing to pick up lunch and thank the driver.
“Afterwards, I was texting the med student who helped coordinate the delivery, and to thank the chief resident because I know how busy he is, and she told me, ‘He wants to take care of his team,’” Schragger said. “The meals are something that they all look forward to. Hearing that we can do something that seems so simple, just sending them a healthy lunch, made us feel like we’re helping to make a difference.’”
Schragger launched Brooklyn Cares with Michele Levin, her friend and colleague from Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights, where they both teach. In just three weeks, they’ve connected struggling restaurants with several hospitals and assisted-living centers and raised more than $20,000 through their GoFundMe page, enough to deliver more than 1,000 healthy meals.
Schragger’s husband, Jon, works in the budget group at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and many of their neighbors are hospital doctors and nurses who were putting in long hours in the city’s emergency rooms and intensive care units at the height of the crisis.
“From my friends who are working in there, it sounded really exhausting — long shifts where they were seeing the same thing over and over and over again, an influx of this type of condition that they’d never seen before,” Schragger said. “There was a lot of talk about physician fatigue, and it definitely felt a little bit frightening — like, how high could the fatality numbers go?”
Meanwhile, some of the families from Saint Ann’s also owned restaurants and were facing their own difficulties once New York City locked down to slow the spread of the virus. Many had closed and others were holding on as best they could, providing take-out service in order to pay their staffs.
“We wanted to find a way to help the health care community, but we also wanted to find a way to help restaurants,” Schragger said. “We knew that there were other groups getting food to hospitals, but we wanted to involve small independently-run restaurants — the real Mom-and-Pop places that make neighborhoods important.”
Juggling their full time teaching jobs and parenting their young children, Schragger and Levin emailed every local hospital, reached out to nearby restaurants, set up a Brooklyn Cares Instagram account, and spread the word through the Saint Ann’s parent network. They worked at night, in the early mornings, and in between their online classes. The community immediately responded, quickly exceeding their initial fundraising goal of $5,000.
Brooklyn Cares’ original goal was to deliver 1,500 meals to the hospitals, and they recently surpassed 1,000 well ahead of schedule. The restaurants are eager to keep the partnership going, cooking meals marked with Brooklyn Cares’ friendly rainbow sticker.
“The restaurants will reach back out again after they’ve done a delivery to tell us, ‘Thank you so much. Do you need more help this week? What else can we do for you?’” Schragger said. “I think they’re all trying to find the balance of bringing their staff in, being safe and trying to meet payroll. One of the restaurant’s owners that I talked to the other day said, ‘You’re helping me stay afloat.’”
That resonates with Schragger, a New Jersey native who’s lived in the city for almost 20 years. Since the shut-down began, she has had moments where New York has felt to her like a ghost town. There are no assurances that New York bounces back from the pandemic, especially the neighborhoods that make it such a vibrant and dynamic place.
“I don’t want to have a New York that doesn’t have these places,” she said. “What makes New York so special is the coffee shop on the corner and the neighborhood restaurants where they know your name. It’s what makes the neighborhoods unique, and it makes me sad to know that it’s going to look different on the other side. I know what we are doing can’t save anything, but we can be part of trying to help.”
For Schragger and Levin, Brooklyn Cares has given them even more than they’ve contributed. It’s given them a purpose.
“We were really just inspired to do something for the community at a time when it’s really hard to feel helpful when you’re stuck at home,” Schragger said. “You think, well, it’s just food and this isn’t helping necessarily to stop the spread of COVID. But if this is something that makes people’s lives a little bit easier, that medical frontliners can walk into the break room and get a meal, it’s a way of saying, ‘We care about what you’re doing, and we’re trying to show our support.’ That’s probably what has meant the most to us.”
To learn more about Brooklyn Cares and how to help, visit their Instagram page.