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Walla Walla Gratitude Train feeds emergency workers with donated restaurant meals

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When dine-in service at restaurants, bars, taprooms and tasting rooms was suspended last month, SuLei Cellars co-owner and winemaker Tanya Woodley found herself feeling helpless and suddenly with more time on her hands.

She wondered how others were doing, too. So she took to social media: “How are our local hospital and health care facilities doing?” she posed in a March 19 post.

“… if these people are working long hours to keep us safe, maybe we have meals delivered to them? This would support our local restaurants and health care facilities at once.”

It was a pondering that quickly became a call to action.

Soon restaurant operators were offering their services, community members volunteered donations, helpers stepped forward to assist in coordination and a movement was born.

Kicked off with the first delivery sponsored by Woodley’s winery and with meals from downtown restaurant Bacon & Eggs, hundreds of meals have been delivered to Walla Walla workers on the health care and emergency services front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Food is love, right?” Woodley said. “When everything else feels helpless and there’s no other way, you feed someone with love.”

Dubbed the Walla Walla Gratitude Train, the movement is anchored by Woodley, Michele Rennie and Lynne Pierce, whose volunteerism on an event planning Committee for the Providence St. Mary Foundation helped navigate the group to Patti Lennartson, Volunteer Services coordinator at St. Mary.

The effects are not just experienced by those being fed, Rennie pointed out. When she saw the original post from Woodley, she said she quickly realized “this could be a really good thing not only the medical and emergency front-liners but also a way to support our restaurants and coffee shops, as well as give donors a way to make a difference in these unusual times.”

Donations pored in. One winery dedicated $1,000 to use toward the cause. Numerous others — from private citizens to businesses — have designated funds. By March 27, more than 550 meals had been prepared and delivered. It’s only continued since then.

The Gratitude Train team is a vessel for the transaction. They master a painstakingly coordinated schedule of frontliners to feed, restaurants to prepare the food and times to deliver.

“The goal is we’re trying to use every restaurant that’s open at least once if we can,” Woodley said.

Donors can request restaurants they want to support.

Meals have been delivered to the Emergency Department at St. Mary, the Fever Clinic, Urgent Care and Walla Walla Clinic. It’s been served to workers in various departments and even to police officers and firefighters.

After a 30-year career in law enforcement, retiring as an assistant sheriff from the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, Pierce said the work satisfies an instinct in her.

“I am not good sitting at home during a crisis and/or emergency, without doing something to help,” she said. “So, for me this was the perfect opportunity to feed frontline health care workers and other first responders while at the same time, utilizing local restaurants to provide the meals and offering our supportive and philanthropic community the opportunity to support this effort with monetary donations.”

Logistically, the group doesn’t handle any of the actual money. When donors designate funds, they call directly to the restaurants to pay for the food.

Every protocol around restaurant sanitation — down to the individually packaged meals — is followed. The group never enters the medical buildings. Drop-offs are arranged in a designated space between the delivery volunteer and an onsite recipient.

Woodley said there’s been conversation about whether the need will be greater when the virus has infected more people here. But there’s no way to know if this will even be possible then. Or, for that matter, how many restaurants will still be operating.

The time is now, she said.

“We will do this until we don’t have any more food or any more money.”

Those interested in contributing can connect via Facebook through Walla Walla Gratitude Train.

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Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 509-526-8321.

Vicki covers business and economic development, including tourism, the Port of Walla Walla and the Strictly Business column, as well as features. She has been reporting for the Union-Bulletin since late 2001.