On a recent day this spring, medical workers at Beaumont Royal Oak got a break from their grueling shift treating COVID’s sickest patients and were treated to a feast of sticky Buffalo wings. Since the pandemic hit in March, this act of gratitude and support to southeast Michigan’s essential healthcare workers has been repeated hundreds of times thanks to a group of women who formed a local chapter of a grassroots organization called Front Line Appreciation Group, (FLAG).
Since the organization’s start in March, FLAG’s Facebook group is reaching nearly 25,000 members. By June, donors and sponsors have given over $350,000 to order 50,000 meals from 106 local restaurants. FLAG also sells T-shirts, plans virtual 5Ks, and hosts online fitness and cooking classes run by other local businesses to raise money for food deliveries.
It all started when Bloomfield Hills resident Monica Toomey reached out to an old friend in New Jersey during the first isolating and uncertain weeks of the pandemic. Her friend had started a local FLAG chapter to support essential workers in the Garden State.
Toomey took her friend’s cue and put together a local “dream team” of women who she knew would take up the task in Metro Detroit. Serving as FLAG spokesperson, Toomey recruited Dani Gilman of Bloomfield Hills to handle marketing and philanthropy, Sarra Brinjikji, also of Bloomfield Hills, to liaison between hospitals and restaurants, Lauren Edgell of Bloomfield Hills as treasurer, Laura O’Brien to reach out for donations from grants and foundations, and Lindsay Pollina of Royal Oak works on cultivating corporate sponsors.
The group started out by pulling 16-hour days while juggling household and homeschooling responsibilities for their elementary school-aged children. Soon, FLAG of Metro Detroit was up and running and receiving kudos from restaurants and healthcare workers alike.
“We were all looking for a way to give back and thank the first responders who were sacrificing their own well-being while we stayed safe at home,” said Toomey.
“Monica was so passionate about this, so you just can’t say no to her,” said Brinjikji. As an infusion pharmacologist, “I have many friends working in the ICU. The cafeterias are not open all the time, and staff just get a quick 30-minute break on their shift. FLAG has been able to provide that quick nourishing meal, and the knowledge that they are cared for and supported by others in the community.”
“The gratitude we are seeing comes in two parts,” said Edgell, who is an aerospace engineer. “The restaurants we have worked with take such pride in the food they prepare and deliver. They tell us we are helping them stay afloat. The hospital workers are thankful to be nourished and know they are appreciated and not forgotten. It’s been a great opportunity as well to teach our children that there is something you can do for others, even from the safety of your home.”
Gilman affiliated FLAG with the Community Foundation of St. Claire County with a donor-advised fund. This makes donations to FLAG tax-deductible.
“Healthcare workers have struggled to keep up with patient loads, and sometimes those working the night shifts feel forgotten and alone, especially when the cafeteria is closed,” said Gilman. “Our partnering restaurants have been able to provide one-handed meals that are meant to be eaten on the go. FLAG has been a great way for people to show their appreciation to these workers as well as a way for restaurants to keep the lights on and their staff paid, all from the safety of our homes.”
Photo: Laurie Tennent