On April 2, a new GoFundMe campaign was launched called RI Feeds our Heroes, and this fundraiser offers double the bang for your buck: donations are used to support local restaurants by purchasing their gift cards, and those gift cards are given to front line workers — our hospital heroes. Three members in the RI community brought this fundraiser to life — Chris Wietecha, owner of Providence Bagels; Jim Nellis, founder of RI Food Fights, and Robin Dionne, the Chief Public Affairs Officer at HealthSource RI — and in just five days, they’ve very nearly reached their initial goal of $5,000. But this is just the beginning.
“Five thousand dollars is the first goal,” Nellis says, “but we’re hoping to raise as much money as possible. It’s a great cause that we hope people will want to get behind.”
The genesis of the fundraiser is attributed to Wietacha. “Chris is drawn to supporting others in the community,” says Dionne. “That’s one of the reason I love Providence Bagel – not just because of their vegan options,” she says half-jokingly, since she got to know Wietacha through RI VegFest. “Chris is worried not just about his own business, but the whole hospitality industry. He’s going out of his way to help others, which really speaks to the kind of person he is. With this fundraiser, he’s not even raising any money for his own restaurant — he’s doing it for everyone else,” she says. “You can’t invent something kinder than that.”
Wietacha is the owner of three Providence Bagel locations, one of which had to close in light of coronavirus, and he is the father of a six-month old, a 2.5-year-old, and a 4-year old. His wife, Kelly, works as an RN at the Boston Children’s Hospital, and his thoughts immediately turned toward helping the community and helping the front lines. Instead of accepting money from the fundraising efforts, he’s donating $100 in Providence Bagel gift cards to each of the Providence Hospitals the fundraiser is supporting: RI Hospital, Miriam Hospital, Hasbro Children’s Hospital, Women and Infants Hospital, and Roger Williams Hospital. “I didn’t want people to see my name and think I’m taking the money,” Wietecha explains. “I don’t want any financial gain.”
The GoFundMe campaign seemingly happened overnight, as soon as Nellis and Wietacha rounded up restaurant participants whom they knew they could mobilize quickly — those who were still open and available for take-out and delivery. So far the restaurants include Tallulah’s Taqueria, KNEAD Doughnuts, Revival Brewing, Pizza J/Julians, Trinity Brewhouse, Dolores, Hometown Poke, Plant City, Sandwich Hut and Hudson Street Deli, but this is not an exclusive list. The goal is to support as many people as possible, and the money will be split equally among participating restaurants.
Nellis and Wietacha became friends through RI Food Fights. (Dionne says, “They love to promote what the other is doing,” which seems like a mark of good friendship to me). “We talk almost every day,” Nellis says. “I have two young boys, and Chris has three young kids — I mean young, young — and his wife is a nurse. I just thought — wow…Some days I go to him and say, ‘I need a pick-me-up,’ or vice versa. And we do what friends do and pick each other up.”
Although Nellis isn’t a restaurant owner himself, he’s been accepted into the “club” with his work, promoting restaurants and other local businesses through RI Food Fights and on social media. “It became apparent a few weeks ago, with just the snap of a finger, that things just changed. When Chris told me about a similar platform, maybe in Virginia, where they were buying gift cards for the front line, he forwarded it to me, and I said, ‘Let’s do this.’ This gives me a reason to get out of bed,” he said.
“I’ve always thought of fear as an excuse,” Wietacha says, “but it’s not an excuse anymore: I’m actually scared.” He had to lay off 48 employees himself. “It was really hard. I never thought I’d have to do that. You can plan for a snow day or a power outage, but no one plans for this. It’s unprecedented.”
As the coronavirus swept through our part of the world, Wietacha thought of his close contacts in the business and wondered, how can we do this? What can we do to survive? “We hear a lot of ‘gift cards, gift cards, gift cards.’ But how can we support local businesses and the people on the front lines? This idea seemed like a solution to catch both sides of it with a single donation.”
Everyone is taking it day by day. The reality is that we’re going to see a change in the landscape of Rhode Island, and as Wietacha noted, the scary part is the unknown. “I hope that out of this, though, people will be better to each other. I’ve learned to not take so much for granted. Simple things, like sitting down, going to dinner, grabbing a beer – it makes me think how lucky I am to have had all of this.”
One way we can be good to each other is by supporting one another in whatever way we are able, particularly through efforts such as RI Feeds Our Heroes. “Our aim is to keep the fundraiser going as long as we can,” Wietacha concludes, “to keep supporting everyone until we don’t need to anymore.”
To donate to the cause, go to RIHeroes.org