On a Monday morning in spring, chef Brian Alberg was making a hundred free lunches
at the Tap House in West Stockbridge.
“In these times,” he says,” people are supporting each other as best they can.”
Like restaurants across the state, his became a takeout business overnight, and a few days later he got an order for 100 lunches for children in Egremont. He packed them and brought them to a gathering point where families could collect them.
He thought of children out of school, like his own, and he decided he would offer free hot lunches on Mondays. He was thinking of comfort food, he says: french bread pizzas, mac and cheese, sausage and white bean soup.
That first morning, he was planning meals for the next few weeks, for as long as people wanted them and he could sustain them. People had already offered to help, he says, and pick-up at the restaurant becomes harder, he would donate the meals to a local food pantry.
He is not alone. As the coronavirus pandemic has taken hold this spring, people across the Berkshires are finding ways to help.
“The world has changed very quickly for all of us,” says Laurie Norton Moffatt, director and CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum, “and it will keep changing before it gets better. The most important thing we can do is reach out to each other.”
She responded to the early days of the epidemic with a personal and public offer on her own social media to give help of any kind. People answered, she says, offering their own willingness to help. She saw the power of creating a circle, reinforcing kindness.
At a time when people are isolated, when they are staying home to slow the spread of illness, people also need help in new and urgent ways. And many people are looking for ways to respond, while keeping themselves and others safe.
Some local businesses who have unique resources are converting them to fill a present need.
Berkshire Mountain Distillers has turned to making hand sanitizer — thousands of bottles a week, says owner Chris Weld. It is a 75 to 85 percent ethanol blend, following World Health Organization guidelines
He is offering it for sale at the distillery, to keep the business going and his employees working, but he is also donating hundreds of bottles each week, and gallons in bulk, to ambulance crews and first responders, police and fire fighters, doctors’ offices and more.
He began looking into the possibility in early March, he says, because he had some of the ingredients in house. The distillery has a beverage alcohol license, not an industrial one, but by late March the government had waived the requirements for industrial licensing and was asking businesses like his to help.
Others are finding creative ways to navigate in a world that has suddenly moved online.
Museums and theaters are creating free content, art and music and more, even while they are cutting back. As many local artists and entrepreneurs are losing performances, exhibits or jobs, Assets for Artists and the North Adams Impact Coalition are reaching out to brainstorm, to find resources, and simply to listen.
Downtown Pittsfield has put together a central site for virtual gift certificates to support many downtown organizations.
Roots Rising is creating a virtual farmers market (page XX) a digital marketplace where farmers can connect with people at home. They are also working to make the market easy and affordable. So families can order local cheese and eggs, coffee and cream, sausage and maple syrup … and have a box delivered to their front porch.
As they began this new venture, co-director Jess Vecchia spent a day, on her own, at the Berkshire Dream Center, in a team of volunteers helping to unload thousands of pounds of food from the Food Bank of Western Mass.
Roots Rising’s youth crews usually help in this substantial job, she says, and the Dream Center relies on the muscles of a dozen teenagers to shift bags and boxes from the mobile food pantry. But Roots Rising suspend their youth crews in March to keep them safely at home, and so Vecchia came to help.
The team of volunteers packed a bag for each person or family, she says, and set it outside for pickup, to keep contact to a minimum. They served 150 households on that one day, more than 550 people. “It was beautiful to see.”
For others offering to deliver food, pick up prescriptions or simply call people at home to ask how they are, Berkshire United Way has become a hub. Local organizations like Berkshire Taconic Foundation and Bridge have taken on that role, connecting people who need resources with places that can help.
At the same time, individual people have formed networks. At least three Facebook groups sprang up in the Berkshires within the first week of the pandemic and then merged into Berkshire Mutual Aid.
“I think we’re all micro-organizing,” says Peggy Kern of Williamstown, a community organizer and activist in the Northern Berkshires. “We’re talking to our family and community.”
She is conserving energy, she says, for efforts she knows are genuinely safe and helpful right now.
As a writer of young adult fiction, she is writing short stories about the pandemic, to help kids think through and process this overwhelming experience, and her publisher is planning to offer them free online
“Creativity is important,” Kern says. “It gives us places to put our feelings. It’s helping us all to have a schedule and be intentional in what we’re doing with our days.”
In the evenings, she and hr family listen to music.
They are tuning in to Berkshire musicians like Gina Coleman and the Misty Blues, who are offering concerts online on Friday nights, and national ones like DJ D-Nice on Instagram. He has been holding a virtual dance party in the evenings, at dinner time on the East Coast.
“We let him play, and we cook dinner,” she says, “and we hang out. Our friends watch too. And we’re all at the same party with the same music. And it’s wonderful.”
This story first ran in the May 2020 issue of Berkshire Magazine. My thanks to Anastasia Stanmeyer.