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Rockville Centre-based front-line support group completes final initiative

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If not for the efforts of a South Hempstead mother of three, staff members at Mercy Medical Center, Mount Sinai South Nassau and other local hospitals might not have been so well fed during the coronavirus pandemic, and several Rockville Centre businesses might not have survived the crisis.

When the pandemic brought the economy to a standstill in March, Michelle James Wettstein took action. The small business owner formed a Facebook group, Support for Local Businesses and Frontline Workers, as a way to keep local restaurants in business and to provide necessities to those working on the front lines.

Wettstein began coordinating meal orders from community members for delivery to various units at local hospitals, and at the time she thought the effort would last a week or two, and then life would get back to normal. Four months later, as businesses begin to reopen, she finally decided to slow down and close the group, which has more than 1,500 members.

“I never knew, week to week, if it would continue,” she said, noting that she has been receiving an average of 100 messages a day since she formed the group. “With businesses opening up, there’s less of a need, and I feel like it’s time to stop.”

When the economy nearly shut down, Wettstein, 44, had to close her birthday party business during the busiest season, and a new venture in newborn photography was also put on hold. She was soon furloughed from her job as a night-shift worker at LaGuardia Airport. But instead of sitting at home, she spent 15 to 18 hours a day trying to make others’ lives a bit brighter.

As the pandemic raged and businesses remained closed or were forced to operate at reduced capacity, the generosity of the community became evident. Donations poured in, along with requests for food deliveries to specific hospital units. Wettstein’s goal was to honor all requests, and over the course of three-plus months, she delivered meals to every unit during each shift at local hospitals, as well as to local pharmacies, grocery stores, nursing homes, gas stations and the Rockville Centre police and fire departments.

“I hope, at this point, everyone who works in the local area was somehow thanked by us,” Wettstein said.

From the start, she coordinated the food orders, payments and deliveries, and 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 would accept the deliveries from restaurants, spruce them up by adding gift baskets and thank-you notes, then leave it on her front porch for pickup.

As holidays approached and more and more celebrations were canceled or postponed, she created a subgroup called Frontline Celebrations. At that point, Wettstein began creating and delivering Easter baskets to children of front-line workers. Soon afterward, she bought a lawn sign for birthdays, which quickly caught on: It gets moved to different homes about three times a day, she said, either by her or her 16-year-old twins, Jaiden and Lindsey.

“I spent my life doing parties,” Wettstein said, “and it was sad to see that these kids did not have anything at the beginning of the shutdown.”

Helping save RVC businesses

Lawn signs, drive-by birthday parties and virtual celebrations soon became the norm. Frontline Celebrations helped support several local businesses that were hit hard during their busiest season. AnnMarie Lubrano, owner of Once Upon a Sundae, on South Village Avenue, credits the group with helping her stay in business.

“We were having our best year ever, and were booked well into September” until the pandemic hit, Lubrano said. As a result, she said, the popular birthday party venue had a lot of inventory, which worked to her advantage. She shifted to selling do-it-yourself sundae kits to go and Stuff-A-Pet kits, which parents could use for virtual birthday parties or buy so their children would have activities to do at home.

Then, out of sympathy for a customer whose birthday tradition for her twins included waking up to number balloons — which were difficult to obtain at the time — Lubrano drove to New Jersey to get the balloons from a friend, and began incorporating balloon bouquets into her business. A few days before Easter, she made a dozen Easter baskets, thinking it would be a good way to sell her inventory.

“I posted it online and they sold out in about five minutes,” she said. And she kept getting orders. She ended up making more than 120 baskets for Easter, she said — and that was when she forged a relationship with Wettstein. The two coordinated their efforts for party requests and deliveries, with the Facebook support group utilizing Lubrano’s supplies and talents for parties.

“This group kept me afloat,” she said. “I was able to pay my rent.”

Lubrano said she had never had an interest in offering to-go parties or selling balloons, but the pandemic forced her to shift gears and change her business model in order to survive. “It made me pivot,” she said. “I look at it as a growth opportunity.”

Kerry Punzi, owner of the Giftologist, on South Park Avenue, was another go-to for the support group. For the celebrations, they turned to her for personalized gifts to include with meal or gift basket deliveries.

“If I didn’t have the help of these groups, I don’t think I could’ve survived it,” Punzi said. “The fact that I was able to get some kind of income really was above and beyond, and very much appreciated.”

Ray Monti, owner of Blue Moon and Dodici, both on North Park Avenue, said he was grateful for the support his restaurants received from Support for Local Businesses and Frontline Workers throughout the spring, and he never had to close. “We were open straight through,” Monti said. “We did not stop once.”

In addition to the food orders received from the Facebook group, he said, individual customers placed orders for hospitals, and his restaurants made donations to Mercy Medical Center, Mount Sinai South Nassau and Winthrop. “I think a lot of people have come to support us because of what we’ve done,” he said.

While the initiatives have ended, the effects will live on: Support For Local Businesses And Frontline Workers sponsored Hue Studio’s community creation of the rainbow mural that was installed this month in the cafeteria at Mercy. The final effort was a raffle, with the $500 proceeds going to local food banks. Participants bought tickets for chances to win gift certificates to Hue Studio, Sportset, Come Together Yoga or an entertainment package. In total, about $85,000 was raised and donated back into the community. An additional $15,000 was donated directly to Rockville Centre businesses.

Though Wettstein is proud of being able to help support the community throughout the crisis, she doesn’t view herself as selfless, as others might. “I think it saved me in a way, too,” she said. “If I had time to sit around and think about it –— the deaths, the loss of my livelihood, the lack of income — I don’t know if I would have survived as well if I didn’t have something else to occupy my mind.

“I’m starting to process the gravity of my job loss,” she continued. “I’m hoping to go back eventually, hoping my businesses will recover. It’s daunting to think how fast the world changed. We were on top of the world one minute, and the next, it all unraveled.”