‘A Great Thing For The Community’: Acts of Kindness Spread Across Area During COVID-19


The coronavirus pandemic has led to an eruption of kind acts across north central Florida.

The statewide stay-at-home order has kept Floridians in their residences except for people providing or doing “essential services” or “essential activities.” That has left many small businesses and their employees struggling financially, but they have also experienced positivity.

Raychel Cawley, 38, is an esthetician who owns Piel. in Gainesville. She said her business stopped offering facials, lashes and waxing after March 17 because staying open would have been irresponsible.

“It’s a domino effect – and I thought I’d be the match that stays out,” Cawley said.

Some empathetic clients sent her payments for the services they would have spent for the month. 

“They fed my family for the week,” she said.

Michael Katz, 45, of Tioga, owns Auto ER, a car repair shop with five locations in Alachua County. Katz said they have serviced 1,500 vehicles – including oil changes, tire rotations and inspections – at no cost for first responders and hospital staff since the pandemic began.

“Some of them were a few key cycles from their car not getting them where they wanted to go,” Katz said.

As for his over 50 employees, he said, “I’m not going to lay anybody off.”

Ian Calsam, 37, of Gainesville, a medical device representative for a company serving area hospitals, received a free oil change at an Auto ER.

“I think it’s a great thing for the community,” Calsam said.

Calsam usually works in operating rooms to help doctors and staff use his company’s equipment properly. That was typically 20 to 30 cases a week, but work has slowed because of the pandemic. Fewer cases is a problem for someone who is paid by each case and not hourly.

“It hits me just as well as it hits the bartenders and servers out there,” Calsam said.

Krishna Lunch, which operates the lunchtime initiative, popular with students and others at the University of Florida, has donated 100 meals to healthcare workers daily since late March, according to the organization’s president, Sruti Sagara Das, 30, of Gainesville.

“None of us know each other, but that makes it even sweeter,” Das said.

John Friary, an emergency room medical scribe at UF Health Shands Hospital, said he was thankful for all the businesses and organizations that have been helping healthcare providers.

“It’s really amazing that they’re willing to make that sacrifice with so much unknown about what’s going to happen over the next few months,” said Friary, 49, of Williston.

Local residents are also using the internet and social media to connect and support each other. 

Chris Floyd, 47, of Gainesville, who owns Insight Insurance Group, said ilostmygig.com, a website created in Austin, Texas, inspired him to start coronatookmyjob.com for local people struggling financially to share their stories and have a direct link for people to help them.

Floyd said he most wants people to speak for themselves, so he interferes as little as possible.

“I don’t want to get in the way of the story,” he said.

Another local resident, Laura Findley, 42, an administrative assistant for Partners Insurance, is using a Facebook page called Gainesville Restaurant Word of Mouth she started with her husband Chris Findley in September to help support the restaurant industry during the pandemic. 

“My first thought was, how do I help the restaurants?” Laura Findley said.

The Findleys are among those who have donated bags of supplies with things like food and toilet paper to industry workers in need.

“It feels really good to be able to give back to our community,” Laura Findley said.

Jason Hurst, 38, owns two area Maple Street Biscuit Company stores. Hurst said their “Biscuits for Heroes” initiative has so far enabled customers to pay for 500 meals for healthcare workers.

“We want to make sure that people know that we’re in it with them,” he said.

Before it closed temporarily last month, the MidiCi-The Neapolitan Pizza store at Celebration Pointe in Gainesville, had about 200 area families come for about 500 entrées that would have otherwise gone wasted, said Mike Mangus, 28, a general manager at the restaurant.

“A lot of people were actually in need of it, which was great,” Mangus said. 

Community organizations are also looking to take care of families in need during the crisis.

Bishop Christopher Stokes, 55, is executive director of the Willie Mae Stokes Community Center in Micanopy and a pastor for the New Beginning Christian Worship Center. Prior to COVID-19, the center helped residents find jobs, fed the needy and watched over children after school at no cost to their parents, Stokes said.

Despite having been closed since March 15, the center is feeding up to 30 families each Friday. Stokes said it was bittersweet seeing their reactions amid all the uncertainty and fear.

“I daily encourage people, you know, faith over fear,” he said.

Samantha Chmielewski, 39, of Newberry, is the admissions and marketing director at the Plaza Health and Rehab in Gainesville. A mother of two children, she decided to use her passion for cooking and reach out through Facebook to see if anyone wanted a home-cooked meal.

Chmielewski said she and her friends have helped 21 people including families but also the elderly, the immunocompromised and caretakers.

“It’s not just me,” she said. “I’m glad other people are starting to be like, ‘OK, how can I help?’” 

Chmielewski made meals that could be eaten later such as pulled barbecue pork, wings, tacos, sausage gravy and biscuits. One of the people who received the food had not eaten in four days. 

“It just breaks my heart that people aren’t eating,” she said.

Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe said his city decreased its residents’ electric bills by about 10% for the month of March. Some of its employees were also reassigned to food distribution sites to help deliver food to people who are in rural areas and can’t leave their homes. 

“We’re trying to get through this together,” Marlowe said.

Other area residents are also using their skills and passions to help their community.

Dayna Hayton, 38, lost her job at a restaurant in Gainesville because of the coronavirus, and until recently also at an orchid greenhouse in Newberry. She helped a friend to create a garden to spread positivity during the pandemic. After Hayton posted about doing so on Facebook, Helene Hammer, 64, a retired teacher in Gainesville, asked for help starting her own garden.

“It really does make people happy, and it’s great for food security,” Hayton said.

Hammer said Hayton tilled her soil, pulled weeds and roots, and helped her plant the seeds.

“In one hour, she had everything ready and planted,” Hammer said.

About Julia Mitchem

Julia is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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