As businesses in Rockville Centre shut down in March, Michelle James Wettstein took action. On March 18, days into the lockdown ordered by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Wettstein formed a Facebook group called “Support for Local Businesses & Frontline Workers,” and had more than 700 members within the first five days. The group grew to more than 1,500 over the next few months, and provided support to struggling businesses as well as workers on the front lines of the battle against the coronavirus who were stretched thin.
Using Facebook, Wettstein used monetary donations from the community to buy meals from local restaurants, which were then delivered to essential workers. Though the group has since been renamed “Support for Local Everything,” it is still going strong, and because of her efforts, the Herald is proud to name Wettstein its 2020 Person of the Year.
“During the outbreak of Covid and during its peak, Michelle orchestrated an incredible effort to care for our community’s front-line and essential workers,” Katie Preston, who became familiar with Wettstein through the Facebook group, said. “Her effort provided thousands of meals to our hospital workers, police, emergency services, grocery store staff and pharmacists. By organizing countless efforts, Michelle helped us, the RVC community, care for our essential workers during the most challenging days.”
“So many people wanted to help support our first responders and medical workers, but we didn’t know how,” Preston added. “She was the one who enabled a lot of us to support those people. She went above and beyond.”
At the beginning, Wettstein said, she thought the effort would last a week or two, and she never expected the group to attract so much support. A 44-year-old mother of three, she coordinated the food orders, payments and deliveries to staff at local essential businesses, making sure every shift of hospital workers was covered and honoring requests for deliveries to specific units. She implemented a rule to limit exposure to the virus: Someone with access to the hospital had to pick up the food from her house. She took the deliveries from restaurants, spruced them up by adding gift baskets and thank-you notes, and left them on her front porch for pickup. By including gift cards with the deliveries, she supported nonessential businesses as well.
Wettstein’s face painting and entertainment business, the ArtFull Experience, was among the many that were forced to shut down, so she took her effort further by helping to keep the magic of holidays alive for those who didn’t have the time, or resources, to do it themselves. She assembled Easter baskets for the children of front-line workers, and organized flower deliveries for Mother’s Day. She decorated the yards of essential workers whose children were having birthdays. She created another Facebook group, “Frontline Celebrations,” in May, offering free services to families of front-line workers. The group is now known as “Sneaky Signs and Celebrations.”
In early December, Wettstein changed the name of her original group to “Support For Local Everything,” writing in the description, “After months and months of the pandemic continuing, we are still continuing to help by supporting local businesses and families in need due to the pandemic or life changing illnesses.”
Rockville Centre resident Michelle Zangari has known Wettstein for 16 years. They have children the same ages, and have crossed paths at various events in the community. “When I think of Michelle, I think of the definition of resiliency,” Zangari said. “She’s had numerous setbacks over the years, medically and professionally, and that has never stopped her from moving forward and making a better life for herself and for her children.”
When the pandemic hit, Wettstein had recently taken a job as a night-shift worker with Delta, and was soon furloughed. With the lack of birthday parties during the busiest season, she suffered a double blow to her income. “Instead of sitting at home and feeling sorry for herself, she turned outward to help other people,” Zangari said. “She doesn’t stand still. She’s always trying to do more, and that includes trying to do what’s best for others.”
Throughout the fall, Wettstein continued to help others by keeping spirits up, particularly children. For Halloween, “Sneaky Signs and Celebrations” set up surprise lawn displays that included treat bags, and she donated a portion of the donations to local children’s charities. In December, she organized a Light Fight in South Hempstead, a holiday decorating contest for residents.
For Christmas, she found a way to combine fun with charity, organizing a Sneaky Elf Scavenger Hunt to benefit a support effort for children called Pandemic Won’t Stop Santa, in which participants purchased elves to place on their lawns, and residents could find them using a special map. The proceeds funded Christmas gifts for about 30 children in need. Wettstein said that about 230 elves were sold, generating about $700 for those gifts.
“She’s incredible, and she just doesn’t stop,” said Cindy Mata Gross, who has known Wettstein for three years and is administrator of the “Support for Local Everything” Facebook group. “She’s been affected so enormously by this pandemic, and she does all of this out of the goodness of her heart. We’re so lucky to have her as a resident of our town. She’s someone who gives back so much and doesn’t want any accolades for what she does.”