Cecily Murray may live in Mountain View, but her heart remains firmly entrenched in South Valley. How else to explain her efforts to pay it forward with the Meals for Heroes program? On Jan. 3, Murray took it upon herself to deliver dozens of meals prepared by GVA Cafe to frontline workers at St. Louise Regional Hospital in a gesture of appreciation for healthcare and restaurant professionals alike.
It was a huge undertaking, especially for one person to drive the operation. Murray—who owns the Morgan Hill medical campus on Juan Hernandez Drive—knew she had to get others involved for the program to reach its full potential. By now, her determination has inspired similar generosity and appreciation in San Benito County.
Enlisting the help of Edith Ramirez—Morgan Hill’s Assistant City Manager for Development Services—and Councilmember John McKay led to an introductory meeting with Carolyn Wallace and David Dindak of the Morgan Hill Downtown Association, because “Caroline makes everything work way better,” Murray said.
And once Nick Gaich—the co-owner of Craft Roots restaurant and the president of the Morgan Hill Community Foundation (MHCF)—came on board, the Foundation streamlined the process and is now the main driver of the Meals for Heroes program along with the Downtown Association.
“The Community Foundation is hosting the program now and has taken it to another level,” Murray said.
No kidding. The Meals for Heroes program currently serves employees at St. Louise and the De Paul Health Center every other day, delivering up to 60 meals at a time from a local food establishment. Murray’s passion to provide accessible, specialized health care in the South Valley was the impetus to start a Meals for Heroes program locally, as she values healthcare providers and local small businesses that have been disproportionately hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It’s been really rewarding to know restaurants are getting work and business from this program, too,” Murray said, “because they just really want to be busy again and do what they set out to do, which is cook and make people happy. You just want all of these places to still be in business when this whole pandemic is over.”
As of Feb. 5, Sinaloa Cafe, Jonty’s, Craft Roots, GVA, Trail Dust BBQ, La Nina Perdida and Beto’s Restaurant have been on rotation providing meals to St. Louise and De Paul. To make a donation, go to https://fs25.formsite.com/MHCF/Meals/index.html.
Inspired by Murray’s ingenuity, Hollister resident Steve Perricone knew a Meals for Heroes program could work in his area, so he contacted Gary Byrne, the CEO of the Community Foundation of San Benito County. Byrne immediately fronted a $5,000 donation to get the program started, and after conversations with Hollister Downtown Association (HDA) Event Manager Teri Escamilla, the program was launched three weeks ago.
“I met with Teri, Teri’s boss and Gary, and it all came together within a couple of days,” Perricone said.
Just like that, in mid-January orders of 25 meals at a time were being delivered to front-line workers at Hazel Hawkins Hospital from restaurants Grllin & Chillin Alehouse, La Catrina and Paine’s. Other San Benito County food establishments that are participating in the Meals for Heroes program include Mangia’s Italian Kitchen, Cozy Cup Cafe, Heavenly Bakery, Fourth Street Eatery, La Sobrosa, Farmhouse Cafe, Seabrisa’s, Country Rose, Eva Mae’s, Dona Esther’s and Round Table Pizza.
The first meal was delivered on Jan. 19, with the goal to eventually get food delivered three times a week, Escamilla said. The idea behind the program was two-fold: one, it benefits not only frontline healthcare workers but local small businesses as well; and two, it rallies the community together during these tumultuous times. It’s a testament to the community in the South Valley area and San Benito County that the two Meals for Heroes programs are humming along, as they can only continue through the efforts of generous monetary donations.
“People are being very generous, and it’s my understanding that there has been a lot of great donations,” Byrne said.
Restaurant owners are not being asked to provide a discount on the meals, so this program benefits the small businesses that have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. Each meal provided to employees at Hazel Hawkins costs $500, which covers food and delivery fees. Byrne, Escamilla and Perricone love the fact that meals are individually wrapped for easy consumption.
“The whole idea of Meals for Heroes is many of the frontline workers don’t have time to sit down and take a 30, 45 minute break,” Byrne said. “Some of them can’t be sitting for a long period of time, so for them to be able to grab something and go is a must.”
Perricone is no stranger to spearheading charitable causes. At the beginning of the pandemic, he and Murray directed a fundraising drive that eventually led to the acquisition of $20,000 worth of N95 masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) for Hazel Hawkins and St. Louise. Now retired, the former Silicon Valley executive and ex-Board member of the Community Foundation of San Benito County received his inspiration to launch a Meals for Heroes program from his friend Murray.
The two met last spring after both received separate calls from Dr. Peter Coelho, who is the medical director at St. Louise and formerly of Hazel Hawkins. It was then that the idea of raising money for PPEs was born, and later the Meals for Heroes program idea took shape.
“He called us both separately saying the hospitals couldn’t get PPEs and they needed our help,” Perricone said.
Murray and Perricone started working together and assembled a group of like-minded volunteers to acquire a large volume of equipment for the area hospitals, including face masks, shields, ventilators, gloves, and HEPA air purifiers. Several of the people in the group had sewing machines at home, and they sewed isolation gowns—which are used for patients—and provided the much-needed clothing to the hospitals.
“Cece and Steve just jumped in and made contacts, and the footwork and amount of work they put in was enormous,” Coelho said. “They do it without notoriety. They don’t take credit; they just make things happen. They are everyday heroes.”
Months after Murray and Perricone led a group effort that provided necessary equipment and PPEs to St. Louise, Murray thought of another way to help all of the frontline workers there, at Hazel Hawkins and De Paul.
“I remember Dr. Coelho talking about something for the staff workers would be nice,” she said. “Something that could cheer them up. Of course, delicious food cheers everyone up. Especially for the night-shift workers because the hospital cafeteria is not open during their shift and vending machines are running low. I read a New York Times article about a restaurant on its own accord starting a Heroes for Meals-type program and thought, why not do it here?”
Community’s generosity shines
The South Valley communities have been generous in both their time and giving since the pandemic started. Two weeks ago, Perricone went to Community Christian Church in Morgan Hill and picked up three large encouragement baskets filled with goodies to be delivered to Hazel Hawkins. Community Christian Church has also been delivering baskets to De Paul and St. Louise, and for Valentine’s Day is donating 20 boxes of See’s Candy to Hazel Hawkins.
The healthcare workers have also received individually packed dried apricots from Bertuccio’s Market and individual pizzas from Round Table. In addition to Hazel Hawkins, Kaiser and other health care organizations, Hollister residents go to St. Louise for their medical coverage, a key reason why the Community Foundation and HDA have decided to donate meals to the Gilroy-based hospital.
“It’s a way to say thank you for taking care of some of the families in Hollister,” Perricone said.
Murray gave ample credit to Dindak and Wallace for pounding the pavement and getting Morgan Hill restaurants involved in the program.
“They’ve been out there literally walking the streets talking to various businesses,” Murray said. “They know everyone in the business community on the restaurant side and the other side. They’re basically lining up the restaurants, helping them to work on the meals and along with the Rotary (Club of Morgan Hill) getting the food to the hospitals.”
Coelho said the community’s resourcefulness and time spent in providing PPEs and the Meals for Heroes program have no doubt uplifted the staffs at De Paul, Hazel Hawkins and St. Louise.
“It’s been very discouraging at times, but to have the community pop back in and say, ‘Hey, we love you and here are meals for you’ has been tremendous and really helped morale,” Coelho said.
Throughout the pandemic, frontline workers in any profession are concerned they’ll contract the virus and then infect their family members.
“We’re fraught with fear of the unknown,” Coelho said.
But the support of the community has been invaluable to the frontline workers for another big reason: there is a certain segment of the population in the U.S.—however small—that thinks the virus was made up for political purposes.
“The community jumped back in when we felt alone and there was all this disinformation of the virus being a hoax or just a fluke,” Coelho said. “It was very emotionally isolating for the frontline and hospital workers that there was so much disinformation coming out and very discouraging because we’re experiencing the opposite of that disinformation. We are seeing people die everyday, and to hear disinformation and contempt toward the beast you’re fighting is one of the weirdest periods of times I’ve lived through, and I’m 54.
“Having patients die on you is extremely stressful, and I’ve had doctors leave in tears just overwhelmed and not able to complete their shifts. Having multiple people die on them everyday is not natural and not what they’re accustomed to. It’s amazing how a gesture like giving food is so powerful because in that moment you know the community has your back, and it doubles your strength to carry on.”