By NOMIN UJIYEDIIN
Kansas News Service
LAWRENCE, Kansas — It’s hard for Meg Heriford to tell people they’re no longer allowed to walk into her restaurant. She runs the Ladybird Diner in downtown Lawrence, one of the first restaurants in town to close when coronavirus cases spiked in the U.S.
After one crowded lunch service, Heriford said, she could no longer justify the risk to her staff or customers. The restaurant closed March 14, though she and a small number of staff haven’t stopped working. The Ladybird is offering free bagged lunches for anyone who needs them. Heriford buys the food from her usual distributor, prepares it and leaves it on carts in front of the restaurant.
“My heart soars and breaks, and soars and breaks a thousand times a day,” she said. “It’s been really taxing, but also really very clear that this is a thing that we should keep doing. Because the need has increased every day.”
As local businesses close, companies lay off workers and counties order most people to stay at home, some Kansans are taking it into their own hands to help their communities. The aid comes in various forms: free meals, providing child care for essential workers, delivering groceries to the homebound.
On Facebook, residents in Lawrence, Wichita and Shawnee Mission have created pages and groups for people looking for assistance — and looking to help others. On Reddit and Nextdoor, people seeking supplies get responses offering rolls of toilet paper and bottles of hand sanitizer, or tips on where to buy them.
Chandra Di Piazza, a teacher in Wichita, said one of those Facebook efforts sprang up for her tight-knit neighborhood, Riverside. Since her school closed, she’s been working part time from home. So she decided to volunteer to babysit for first responders and make deliveries for people who can’t go out.
“I was a young single mom, and if I had been in that situation where I had to go to work and everything was closed, it would have really hurt me,” Di Piazza said. “I have that time to do whatever needs to be done for my neighbors.”
Di Piazza is one of about a dozen other people offering help on ICT Response, a website started to help Wichita residents through the COVID-19 breakout.
Others are joining groups that existed before the pandemic, like the nonprofit Ballard Center in Lawrence, which distributes groceries to families in need.
On a rainy Tuesday morning at the Douglas County Fairgrounds, Rachael Shankland, a legal assistant in Lawrence, was one of about 30 volunteers. She saw on Facebook that the center needed volunteers, and she needed something to do, now that her office is closed and Douglas County is under a “stay at home” order.
“Seeing how scared everybody is just makes you want to make sure everyone doesn’t have to worry about little things like food,” she said. “I feel like this is one of the essential things that … we’re allowed to be out and doing.”
Usually, only about 15 volunteers help with each event, said Marion Belcher, who has volunteered to distribute food for the Ballard Center for more than 12 years. But twice as many people as usual helped unpack food from crates and sorted them into bags to give to a line of cars snaking through the parking lot.
The number of people in line was atypical, too, Belcher said. Usually about 100 families come to the bimonthly distribution. He estimated the total number of families approached 300 on Tuesday.
“I think it’s the coronavirus: the fallout from it, the unemployment, stores closing,” he said. “Things that people normally do, they can’t do anymore.”
Kansas saw more than 23,000 people file for unemployment last week — more than a 1,000% percent jump. So for families out of work, extra help from their community can make a big difference.
Kristen Maxon was one of several people who stopped by the Ladybird Diner at lunchtime. She and her partner, who live in Lawrence, have done this a few times in the past two weeks.
Maxon’s six children typically eat lunch at school, and they can still get free meals even though the buildings are closed. But the diner is more convenient.
“I’m so glad that they’re doing this,” Maxon said. “This place is closer, so it’s great.”
Both Maxon and her partner have been mostly out of work due to COVID-19. She balances a little working from home with homeschooling her kids and taking them on walks, all while social distancing.
“I’m glad that we’re not at work spreading the virus, but it’s really hard,” Maxon said. “My house is in full chaos. It’s hectic.”
Nomin Ujiyediin reports on criminal justice and social welfare for KCUR and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @NominUJ.