Last week, Williams for Williamstown delivered its 1,000th meal to medical staff in Berkshire County, Massachusetts. Founded by graduating senior and squash player, Eliza Bower, the student-run organization has raised more than $40,000 over the past six weeks to support local restaurants and feed staff at Berkshire Medical Center and Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.
Like most college students around the country, Bower was sent home in the middle of March due to the pandemic just a few weeks after her final college team nationals.
“I was quite sad to be leaving and had this sentiment that I really wanted to do something to help the Williamstown community,” Bower said. “The Williams community has given me so much for the past four years and it’s a place that I love and somewhere that welcomed me with open arms.”
Bower was concerned by both a spike of cases in Berkshire County, which only has one regional hospital and an at-risk population with a median age of fifty-one, and a college town with local businesses that rely on income from students. After some research, Bower began Williams for Williamstown with a three-pronged approach: help feed frontline medical workers, support local restaurants and businesses in Williamstown, and engage the Williams College community. The organization calls it their Win Win Win.
Bower quickly gained the support of other friends and students eager to get involved and launched a gofund.me the first week of April. The organization raised $1,300 on the first day and made its first delivery of 100 meals a few days later.
“I wanted to find a way to give back that was scalable and sustainable throughout the pandemic,” Bower said. “It was so sad leaving local businesses knowing they would be facing some big financial challenges without the students. After consulting local hospitals, meal support was a growing need and we were able to connect the Williams community while we were spread around the world.”
Meal provisions for medical staff has been a tangible rallying point for many communities around the country hoping to aid their local hospitals during the pandemic. Many hospitals have required increased hours and shifts for staff. The necessity of Personal Protective Equipment has also been paramount during the pandemic, which often can complicate meal flexibility due to the extensive preventative measures taken to assemble and disassemble the equipment. Berkshire Medical Center appointed a Patient Experience Specialist, Jennifer Bailey, with the role of safely coordinating and distributing community donations such as meals from Williams for Williamstown.
“Numerous organizations, restaurants and individuals have donated food and other items to Berkshire Health Systems for our caregivers during this time,” said Michael Leary, Berkshire Health System’s director of media relations. “We greatly appreciate all of the efforts to date and we know more will be coming as we continue to fight COVID-19 in our community. We thank all who have provided this kind of support for our incredibly hard-working staff across the county.”
The service industry has been one of the hardest hit throughout the U.S. during the pandemic. Local restaurants have benefited as an essential cog in the operation, many of which were forced to make lay offs and furloughs early in the shut down. Funds raised by Williams for Williamstown go directly to each restaurant in hopes of keeping operations afloat. Some establishments were able to resume production and paying staff solely due to the demand and income initiated from the program.
“I never thought it would reach this many people as a grassroots student-run organization,” Bower said. “One of the most amazing things has been the number of contributors that we’ve had. We have close to 1,000 contributors and donations of all sizes. There’s such a positive energy from the Williams and Williamstown communities. It’s been amazing to see how many people want to give back to the community.”
In the six weeks since launching, Williams for Williamstown has garnered support from the entire college. Nearly 500 students, alumni and faculty participated in ‘Sweat 2 Support’, a virtual 5k/10k/Half Marathon Walk, Bike, Erg & Run, May 2-3, to benefit Williams for Williamstown. Both Williams College President Maud Mandel and Williams graduate and Bachelor in Paradise star Dylan Barbour recorded messages to support the event. Other benefit events included the squash team ghosting and planking, the crew team rowing more than 1,000,000 meters, the Williams Octet recording online songs, the rugby team doing 10,000 push ups and the golf team putting on a juggling challenge.
One full circle moment that has driven home the impact of the organization for Bower was helping Dr. Ann Marie Swann at the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center. Dr. Swann is both a Williams alum and a squash parent of Williams senior Melissa Swann. Dr. Swann’s team cares for COVID-19 patients sick enough to require hospitalization and warmly welcomed their breakfast delivery on Sunday, May 17.
Bower thanked her squash teammates in particular for their involvement getting the movement off the ground.
“The entire community has been astounding in so many ways, but especially the squash teams,” Bower said. “The teams have both wanted to be involved and do what they can from the start because Williams squash has meant so much to all of us and has been a vital part of our Williams experience.”