Once upon a time, in the summer of 2020, a band of rogue moms in Stamford did as much as anyone to vanquish the widest wealth gap in America.
They didn’t steal from the rich, but these modern-day Robin Hoods did, among so many other things, “hijack” a delivery truck of food for the hungry.
Our tale begins shortly after the pandemic suddenly dammed the income stream for those who work in restaurants, clean homes and manicure nails and backcountry lawns.
Through the pixels of the looking glass, teachers noticed some students dozing off during virtual lessons, citing hunger as the cause. While everyone was ordered to maintain social distance, Szilvia Smyth learned some mothers were ringing doorbells of neighbors to ask, “Do you have any food you can spare so I can feed my kids?”
These were families on the free-and-reduced meal programs in their schools. Though Stamford officials, like counterparts in other communities, tried to pivot quickly to create pickup alternatives for meals, many were left in peril. In the middle of a pandemic, without child care and transportation, food seemed unattainable.
Several such stories reached Smyth in her role as president of Springdale Elementary School’s PTO.
She spearheaded a grassroots response, recognizing the moment called for home deliveries nonprofits did not provide. An army of other parents (and teachers) grew until it eventually topped 200, fueled by social media. The Helping Families initiative wrapped up last weekend with the delivery of 147 backpacks filled with boilerplate supplies as well as toothbrushes, hand sanitizer and applications for the municipal meal program.
Parents in vulnerable families developed a trust with Smyth, a Hungarian immigrant, and Tracie Dinc, who is fluent in Spanish. Wish lists were posted on Amazon, Target and Walmart sites. Members of the covert operation swapped intel from supermarket circulars.
The poignancy of the movement is in the elusiveness of everyday essentials: milk, diapers, shoes, salt.
Early on, a mother requested a half gallon of milk, explaining “I have this gallon and I keep watering it down to get through the week.” So milk was added to the shopping list.
Accustomed to containing costs, parents requested diapers a size or two too large to maximize their usage. “That was heartbreaking to me,” Julie Fraser says.
They resisted clothing donations out of respect for COVID protocols, limited storage space, and remaining steadfast to the objective of feeding children. Some exceptions were made. A volunteer recognized a young girl wearing winter boots during the steamy summer months because she had no alternative.
The program was already two months old when Theresa Baker asked a mother if there was anything her family needed. She made a modest request for the most elemental of seasonings.
“Do you think you could get me some salt?”
So salt-and-pepper packets were added to deliveries.
“That just killed me,” Baker says.
At the homes of organizers, living rooms, mud rooms and dining rooms were transformed into stockrooms. The breadth of the need was represented by both the volume of the stockpile, and how quickly it vanished as volunteers collected and delivered goods.
Smyth returned to her job over the summer and handed the baton to Fraser and Dinc. Fraser drafted her parents to collect deliveries while they stayed with her over nine weeks. At a time when most people weren’t getting visitors, drop-offs reliably arrived, and she is now on a first-name basis with Mickey from UPS. In some cases, mothers asked to pick up supplies so their desperation would not be revealed to peers.
The stealth mission got flashes of corporate support. High Ridge Brands kicked in boxes of soap and kid-friendly toothbrushes featuring the likes of the “Star Wars” cast. A resident who runs a vending machine company had stock that was expiring with no office machines to fill, so they received boxes of granola bars and chips.
They organized assembly lines and spreadsheets (“I do love me a good spreadsheet,” Fraser cracks) and learned the value of luring donations by defining goals (“It paints a picture,” Dinc notes). Before the enterprise risked spinning out of control, families started voluntarily “graduating” from the program as work returned for the likes of restaurant and hourly workers.
While talking to Fraser, Dinc and Baker via computer Friday, I point out that at least by my unofficial tally of names on their comment boards, virtually all of those 200-plus volunteers seemed to be female. They quickly cite the good deeds of New Canaan firefighter Michael Jackson ... and a few husbands and a father who sometimes rode along. I hold the fingers of one hand to the screen: “That’s five.”
They laugh heartily, insisting they couldn’t have pulled this off if husbands weren’t keeping an eye on the kids.
It seems about right, Moms find solutions — even for other moms.
Case in point, the day a New York City restaurant supply delivery truck was running several hours late with milk and eggs (48 dozen). Fraser insisted the company reveal the driver’s next stop. When he arrived at the ACME loading dock nearby, “we stood there tapping our feet,” and hijacked their supplies, she recalls.
The merry band disbanded with the start of school, guiding interested donors to the website www.fillingintheblanks, which two moms started seven years ago to help children in low-income households in Fairfield and Westchester counties.
Fraser says they realize the band may need to reunite if schools are forced to close again in coming weeks, “but we haven’t really talked about that yet.”
Like any good fairy tale, this one has grim undertones, a happy ending and — hopefully — no need for a sequel. It also leaves behind a map others could follow.
John Breunig is editorial page editor of the Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time. Jbreunig@scni.com; twitter.com/johnbreunig.