Maria Adragna couldn’t recall the exact day the food delivery came. Having worked in a Covid-19 intensive care unit during the peak of the pandemic last spring, “I can’t differentiate between one day or the other,” she says.
Adragna, of Bellmore, is a surgical ICU physician assistant at North Shore-LIJ in New Hyde Park. When coronavirus cases first began to surge on Long Island in March, she and her team were deployed to the coronavirus ICU.
“We were frightened,” she said. “We didn’t know what to expect. We were afraid we would make our loved ones sick . . . Some of us suffered from post-traumatic stress.”
The fear of the unknown permeated other facets of Adragna’s life. She worked through 13-hour shifts, barely stopping to eat or drink so she wouldn’t have to remove her mask. Since she didn’t have time to shop for groceries after work, she never brought a bagged lunch to the hospital.
So when the spread of wraps, heroes and baked goods greeted Adragna amid the blur, “It was totally unexpected,” she said.
The delivery came from South Bellmore Deli, and was paid for by “Bellmore Merrick Helping Our Heroes.” The Facebook group was founded by Merrick residents Brooke Jones and Jill Levine in March to raise money to feed healthcare workers, first responders and essential employees on the front lines of the pandemic.
By May 25, the group had raised more than $50,000, arranged hundreds of deliveries and fed “thousands and thousands and thousands of people,” Levine said. For their efforts to feed front-line workers and to help keep local businesses afloat during unprecedented times, the Herald Life is proud to name Jones and Levine its 2020 People of the Year.
The pair met during dismissal at Levy-Lakeside Elementary School in 2001. Their oldest children, Robbie Levine and Allison Jones, were in the same kindergarten class. “We became quick friends,” Levine recalled.
They were both heavily involved in the PTA. Jones, 54, was well-known from the lunch program and Levine, 50, held nearly every executive position on the PTA. “[Jill] was always very fun and easy to talk to,” Jones said. “We’re doers, and whenever something has to get done, we call each other.”
On Sept. 27, 2005, Jill’s son, Robbie, collapsed during Little League practice at Lakeside and never woke up. Levine and her husband, Craig, channeled their grief into a nonprofit, Forever 9: The Robbie Levine Foundation.
When the Levines were planning the foundation’s first Robbie’s Run in 2006, Jones volunteered as one of the activity coordinators. The run has become one of the most highly anticipated events in the Bellmore-Merrick community, and earned Levine her first Person of the Year recognition in 2011.
Once their children started attending John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore, the pair “took over” JFK Sports Boosters, according to current Membership Chair Nancy Goldstein.
“I volunteered because of them,” said Goldstein, of Merrick. “They were always in charge and very well-respected, and I adored their leadership.”
Helping front-line heroes
Levine recalled the confusion and panic she felt as area hospitals became overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients in the spring. “Maybe there’s something we could do,” she thought.
The pair invited “everyone they knew” to join “Bellmore Merrick Helping Our Heroes” on Facebook, Jones said, which grew to 2,000 members. Once the Venmo handle was posted to the page on March 23, members raised $4,000 within hours. In five days, they raised $20,000.
Goldstein wasn’t surprised by the instant success of the group. “When those two women put their minds together, you know it’s going be a success,” she said.
Members connected Jones and Levine with front-line workers from Bellmore and Merrick so they could delegate deliveries to their workplaces. They dealt directly with the employees to coordinate delivery times and figure out how much food to send.
“There were some nights we were up until 3 o’clock in the morning keeping track of lists and lists and lists,” Jones said. “Our husbands probably wanted to kill us.”
In three months, the group funded more than 200 deliveries to hospitals, police precincts, fire departments, pharmacies, post offices and grocery stores across Long Island and New York City. Levine estimated that the effort fed nearly 6,150 heroes.
“For these people who never sat down, had N95s on all the time, a sandwich was far more than a sandwich,” she said. “They were more appreciative than we ever could have imagined.”
One delivery that stood out to Jones was to Central Island Healthcare in Plainview, which takes in geriatric patients undergoing physical rehabilitation. At the time, the facility wasn’t allowing visitors, and employees were tired, according to Jones, so the group delivered two floors’ worth of food to feed workers, including the custodial and kitchen staffs.
“One of them called me crying — they couldn’t believe how we went out of our way to make sure there was food for them,” Jones said. “We felt like we were giving them hope through this.”
The pair also ensured that local restaurants provided the food. Sasha Greeff, who owns South Bellmore Deli, on Merrick Road, was one of the many merchants supported by the effort. “We saw a major loss in business, but these ladies kept us afloat,” she said.
Included in the deli’s delivery to Adragna’s unit were hand-written thank-you cards and drawings from “Helping Our Heroes.” As Adragna read the messages from her neighbors, she was overcome with appreciation.
“I felt grateful that the community made time to give us a moment of happiness,” she said. “It was a source of motivation for me and my co-workers and boosted our morale.”
Hearts of gold
On June 25, Jones and Levine were recognized by the Town of Hempstead as Hometown Heroes. “The deliveries brought a sense of relief to these workers during difficult times,” Councilman Christopher Carini said in a statement. “I could not think of anyone more deserving to be Merrick’s People of the Year.”
Angela Rosenfeld, the JFK Sports Boosters treasurer, noted her friends’ unrelenting support for their community. “They have children in college, they have their own worries, but they put all that aside and managed to turn a horrific thing [into] something positive,” she said. “They’re living angels, and we’re really lucky to have them.”
Goldstein also commended Jones and Levine’s willingness to give so much of themselves, despite having faced life’s greatest challenges. For Levine, it was the loss of her son, and for Jones, it was a Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer diagnosis in May 2016.
But Jones does not let her illness define her. Instead, she continues to bring her neighbors together for the greater good. “Since I’m living with a terminal disease and still do what I like to do, I can be an example to people,” she said.
“We don’t do this for attention or notoriety,” she added. “We do it from the goodness from our hearts.”