Stronger together, Aurora community helpers shine during COVID-19 crisis

Shortly after the mid-March COVID-19 shutdown and stay-at-home orders, my friend reminded me of what Mister Rogers’ mother said to him during scary times, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

The friend is Sheli Massie, executive director of The Goldfinch Cafe, a pay-what-you-can restaurant that hopes to open eventually in downtown Aurora. Massie has been dedicated to volunteering at Aurora Area Interfaith Food Pantry for the last several months, and since the  drive-thru food pick-up started due to COVID-19 preventative measures, Massie has been at the frontlines filling the trunks of vehicles with boxes of canned food and bags of produce and breads. 

Massie recruited me and another friend, Annie McWilliams, one of the owners of AKA Dance, to assist at the end of March. McWilliams and I were stationed outside of a large bay. We were tasked with loading milk and snacks into the carts, and getting them in the queue so they could be ready for loading into cars.

(L-R) Sheli Massie, Marissa Amoni, and Annie McWilliams volunteer at the Aurora Area Interfaith Food Pantry at the start of the COVID-19 shutdown. Demand has now tripled at the pantry since late March. Photo courtesy Aurora Area Interfaith Food Pantry.

I was impressed with how seamlessly the drive-thru worked. From 9 a.m. to noon on a Tuesday, Massie and other volunteers quickly loaded the cars. I would grab a cart from the building that had been pre-filled by dozens of volunteers with a box of canned goods, a bag of packaged meat, a bag of bread, and a bag of produce. Then McWilliams would add two gallons of milk, and we took turns tossing in snack bags and other items such as prickly pear cactus or fresh flowers.

Then empty shopping carts would be pushed back to start the cycle again. We served just over 200 cars that morning. Impressive for sure. 

Almost a month later on April 16, Massie reported that they served more than 600 cars that day. That same day the pantry’s executive director, Cat Battista, reached out to the community: Can you feed the 5,000?

Since then, the food pantry organized drive-thru donation drop-off days and Prisco’s Family Market is sponsoring a food drive to support the effort by selling $10 and $20 groceries bags for the pantry. 

As a thank you to pantry staff and volunteers, Dan Emerson from Gillerson’s Grubbery, and Florencio Gutierrez from Flo’s 2:AM Tacos showed up one day to feed them lunch. 

Gillerson’s Grubbery continues to run a promotion that encourages community members to buy burgers for essential workers and volunteers. From these donations, Emerson has already served the staff at Prisco’s Family Market, Aurora Area Interfaith Food Pantry, US Postal Workers, and more. 

Through a Facebook campaign, Rebecca and Mark Walker along with their three sons, of Aurora, helped raise almost $2,000 for Hesed House by accepting challenges from their friends and family, like doing a TikTok video and one son shaving his brother’s head. 

An Aurora family poses on their front porch for photographer Amy Nelson recently.

Photographer Amy Nelson joined a growing, but short-lived trend when she took to the sidewalks with her camera in tow as she captured local families on their porches. From a safe distance, Nelson documented how some are spending their days during the stay-at-home order. Nelson also ran social media contests and gave away gift cards to local businesses as part of the Front Steps Project.

Other community members are sewing masks, dressing up as the Easter Bunny, printing t-shirts, cooking meals for Wayside Cross residents, putting hearts in their windows, thanking essential workers, creating drive-by support parties, posting photos of their carry-out, creating memories for high school seniors, and more. 

Massie recently created a Facebook group called Sustainable Kindness. Sustainable Community. The group invites members to post both needs and offers. Massie said the purpose of the group is to build a mutual aid network where members can request and offer aid, and connect with one another.

Another Facebook group called Raising Kane County has started a volunteer form HERE for area needs.

On April 25, the newly formed Relief Coalition is holding Relief Aid: An online concert benefiting Relief Coalition. Concert proceeds will be used to continue offering relief boxes to furloughed and unemployed hourly workers in partnership with Marie Wilkinson Food Pantry. 

What’s becoming apparent during the COVID-19 crisis is that everyone’s efforts matter. Everyone can help in some way, and our community is proving that we are stronger together. 

Stay well!

Marissa Amoni, Aurora Downtown Manager

Photo courtesy of Aurora Area Interfaith Food Pantry. (L-R) Sheli Massie, Flo Gutierrez, Cat Battista, and Dan Emerson cheer for the pantry at a recent food drive-thru day where they served up Flo’s 2:AM Tacos to staff and volunteers.