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Seven community advocates who stepped up and fought back against COVID-19.

Seven community advocates who stepped up and fought back against COVID-19.

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The 24 hour news cycle taught us a lot about individuals and organizations that stepped out of their roles and used innovation and creativity, mixed with selflessness and generosity, to make lives better for those affected by COVID-19.

Sometimes, though, heroes can come in unsuspecting forms. As a way to celebrate the wins we’ve seen this year, we honor seven individuals and/or groups that made a big difference in a big way.

Company Name: Renfro Corporation

Trade: Manufacturing

Kudos: By May 1, 2020, one million masks were produced weekly. Part of the initial offerings went to local and area residents in the Mask the City initiative where 380,000 face masks were distributed in a two week period. The initiative also raised $180,000 for residents who couldn’t afford to purchase a mask.

Sock and hosiery manufacturer, Renfro Corporation, and Wake Forest Baptist Health (WFBH) teamed up to design and manufacture the Nightingale™ mask to help communities across the country combat the spread of COVID-19 — especially at the beginning when mask shortages were seen across the world.

The mask is a success story on multiple levels — aside from offering protection to wearers of the face mask, the process allowed manufacturing workers to stay employed during the pandemic.

“It was remarkable to watch our employees rally to the cause,” says Jonah Buelin, Renfro senior vice president of supply chain. “The experience was akin to watching an elaborate ballet as so many pieces came together within our company and the partnerships that were involved to make these masks a reality.”

A meeting of the minds took place at Wake Forest Innovation Quarter where Bill Satterwhite, J.D., M.D., and chief wellness officer at WFBH has an office, as well as Renfro.

“I knew there weren’t enough masks to meet the demand,” Satterwhite says. “I circled my WFBH team together and within five days, we had developed a prototype face mask; then we were connected to the Renfro folks.” 

Manufacturing started on April 15 and five days later, the first masks were ready for shipment. The close-fitting and comfortable masks are designed with a breathing pocket and two sets of straps for secure wearing approved by physicians and were internally tested for filtration efficiency (but are not intended for medical use).

Company Name: Wake Forest Baptist Health

Industry: Health care

Kudos: Wake Forest Baptist Health was the first academic medical center in the United States to begin enrolling patients in COVID-19 clinical trials, which is a true testament to the community at large.

If COVID-19 taught us one thing, it’s that health care organizations wear many hats, and they’re better off for it since they can quickly roll with the punches.

WFBH was not only immediately ready to treat COVID-19 from a clinical standpoint, but they pivoted quickly from a research perspective. The credit largely goes to their philanthropy arm.

“We had many supporters and gifts that came in directly to support the pandemic and the challenges it has represented. Those funds actually helped us step into coronavirus research, and the benefit of that has direct impact on the community — but also all across the world,” says Lisa Marshall, chief philanthropy officer at WFBH. “We were the first academic medical center to enroll individuals in clinical trials, and in part, we’re able to step into things like that because of the support of the community.”

As a health care center, WFBH had its share of stressors related to the pandemic, including keeping its own frontline workers safe. The organizations’ COVID-19 Response Fund was created by the philanthropy department and was a huge help in keeping the hospital safe and the learning experience alive for students.

“It ensured that our employees and patients were well cared for. It ensured we had the protective equipment, especially early on when all hospitals were hit really hard,” Marshall says. “It has also made a difference on the education side. We had to go to all virtual learning for the school-learning they do, and then we’ve been successful in limited numbers back into clinical settings. We have to ensure they all have PPE.”

The COVID-19 Response Fund is still seeking support.

“What we’ve experienced is a community who very, very quickly steps up to helps us,” Marshall says. “A community of this size that has an academic medical center of this size and impact is really special. We’re in this together because we’ve always been in this together.”

Organization: Providence Restaurant & Catering

Industry: Hospitality

Kudos: In the early months of COVID-19, Providence provided meals to people experiencing homelessness to assist the Interactive Resource in Greensboro.

It’s no secret that the hospitality and restaurant industries have taken a beating during the pandemic. Restaurants have had to change course with takeout, grab-and-go, and other dining options, dealing a financial blow to most organizations that resulted in furloughs, layoffs, or a reduction in operating hours.

Jeff Bacon, executive director and vice president of Providence, a program of Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina, was affected like many in March. He stepped up with initiatives to feed employees in the hospitality world, as well as another affected group: school-aged children. The HEARD Collaborative Café provided meals to displaced workers; up to 400 meals a day and supplied produce boxes from food banks like Second Harvest.

Bacon took his efforts a step farther and got meals for after-school students with the help of a city partnership that pumped out 40,000 meals weekly at its peak.

“Our goal was to keep everyone we could employed and kids fed,” he says. “It was nothing short of a miracle that we didn’t have to lay anyone off.”

He acknowledges the many partnerships that made the initiatives possible: chefs, restaurant owners, Triad city officials, food suppliers like U.S. Food, Sysco, and others, local farms like Joyce Farms, and nonprofit organizations.

Organization: Interactive Resource Center (IRC)

Industry: Social services

Kudos: The Salvation Army partnered with IRC to find permanent homes for the homeless population affected earlier in the year. At the time of this article, 147 people were placed in permanent housing.

Homelessness is a real issue in the Triad and COVID-19 dealt the population an additional burden — safe shelter.

“We recognized in March there would be a need for shelter due to covid,” says Michelle Kennedy, executive director of the Interactive Resource Center (IRC) in Greensboro. The nonprofit is dedicated to the belief that housing is a basic human right and homelessness is an experience, not a person.

The center is a safe place for people to take a shower and use the computer lab, classrooms, and meeting spaces in a building surrounded by organic gardens free for the picking. Some do laundry or pick up mail.

When the pandemic reared its head in the spring, the organization worked with area hotels, the City of Greensboro, and Cone Health to create an emergency hotel shelter so that the most vulnerable of populations wouldn’t have to shelter in a congregate setting during a pandemic. In April, IRC sent 150 people to the Hampton Inn – Greensboro Airport for shelter.

Along with a place to sleep, IRC provided comprehensive care; three meals a day in partnership with Providence, onsite medical care, and COVID-19 testing every two weeks. The IRC team is already anticipating the winter season and starting to put a shelter plan in place.

“This is not just about protecting the health of people experiencing homelessness, this is about protecting the health of our entire community,” Kennedy says. “There was no instruction manual for this situation but we will continue to rise to the occasion as needed.”

Organization: Triad Food & Beverage Coalition

Industry: Hospitality

Kudos: A grant from AT&T fed displaced restaurant employees and frontline health care workers from May to August providing 2,500 meals.

Algenon Cash is more than the owner of Zesto Burgers & Ice Cream.

He’s a fierce and dedicated activist for the hospitality industry, launching the Triad Food & Beverage Coalition — an advocacy group for restaurants, bars, and food trucks. He’s behind the bipartisan bill, the Restaurant Act, which made it through the U.S. House, and is gaining traction in the Senate. Additionally, the industry is lobbying to pass the Heroes Act, which includes funding to assist independent bars and restaurants that meet certain criteria.

To date, the industry has lost an estimated 2.3 million jobs. “Educating consumers” is crucial, Cash says.

To that end, he’s orchestrating a public service campaign to inform and educate consumers in the importance of supporting local restaurants and that it can be done safely.

Company: Trinity Elms Health & Rehab

Industry: Health care

Kudos: Trinity Elms Health & Rehab had zero positive COVID-19 cases at their center during the shutdown, proving that social distancing and PPE — when used correctly — can make a difference.

Trinity Elms Health & Rehab, operated by Lutheran Services Carolina (LSC) in Clemmons, has the rare distinction of having zero positive COVID-19 cases among senior residents during the stay-at-home phase that restricted visitors from March to mid-October. Currently, families are allowed short, outside visits with residents in accordance with safety guidelines.

Executive Director MaryBeth Lemly attributes the safety of residents to many factors, all which spell diligence throughout the organization.

“Employees at Trinity Elms (and all LSC facilities) are screened as they enter the building,” says Lemly. “Our teammates are required to wear masks from the moment they enter the building and are always masked when they enter residents’ rooms. Each employee receives a new mask every day of work.”

New admissions to Trinity Elms, whether they’re coming from home or the hospital, are quarantined for 14 days, per Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services guidelines. When attending to quarantined residents, the nursing team wears additional PPE, including a gown, N95 mask, gloves, and other protections as needed. All residents are screened daily for COVID-19 during each shift change.

 LCS, which is also a nonprofit, has seen a significant increase in expenses related to pandemic precautions, ranging from masks, gowns, goggles, face shields, cleaning supplies, daily meals for employees, and more. Across the organization, they’ve spent over $1 million on testing.

“Because it helps keep us all safe, we consider it money well spent,” Lemly says. “Our teammates have done a great job of keeping residents occupied and connected to their loved ones through technology (FaceTime, Zoom, etc.) and helping to arrange window visits. We are incredibly grateful to our team members who have stepped up in such an extraordinary way during a very stressful time.”

Organization: Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools

Industry: Education

Kudos: When kids were sent home and school doors shuttered, the WS/FCS system sprang into action, increasing its means to contact parents and children about changes, as well as being a resource to those in need.

To the parents — and kids — in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, Brent Campbell, chief communications officer, is a superhero.

The communication department’s work started in earnest when schools that were shut down earlier in the year reopened in the fall during Phase Three with “Our Safe Return” campaign — district website, videos, FAQs, and other messaging updates. 

“We worked 10-hour days and weekends,” says Campbell. “Changes involved spacing in classes and cafeterias, floor stickers, and many other safety guidelines. Schedules are affected for everyone; just getting in the building is different.”

Using the Blackboard communication system, Campbell and his team keep parents updated about free lunches, surveys, meetings, and other important information. Families receive the alerts via text, phone calls, email, and mobile app.

“I am the ‘Phone Guy’ among other titles,” he says. “We send phone messages daily to more than 76,500 homes.”

To many, he’s the “masked crusader” whose mission is to inform, protect, and even entertain his school community. Campbell’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed, and by mid-summer, Facebook fan pages cropped up, created by parents who were so enamored with the attention and care he gave to school families.

Sometimes there are photos and memes of him in a Superman cape.

“I’m glad people appreciate the information we send them even though they poke fun at the volume of phone calls from the district,” he says. “I’ve been stopped by parents who thank me in grocery stores for making a difference. Their kindness and support keeps me going.”

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