Illustrations by Franziska Barczyk
When the world stopped being normal, these alumni used their tools to support communities in crisis.
Karra Puccia ’17 hurriedly opened the door of her red Jeep, got in, and buckled her seat belt. With her mother and brother, she prepared to drive the 12 minutes from her home in Queens to New York-Presbyterian, her local hospital and the place she was born. Only this time, with the usually crowded streets barren, it’d be a quick 5-minute trip. The mission? Bagels.
Puccia is one of many Colgate alumni helping her community in the midst of a global pandemic. At press time, the Whitestone neighborhood of Queens, where her father is a primary care physician, was shuttered like many in the city. Queens was the epicenter of the crisis in New York City, with more than 20,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, which meant more strain on local hospitals and small businesses. “People that I’ve known my whole life, and places that I’ve known my whole life, are suffering,” she says.
Wanting to help the doctors and nurses she volunteered for during high school and the local restaurants that feed her neighborhood, Puccia made a plan to give back to her community through the one item everyone needs to keep going: food. While completing her Brooklyn Law School studies online, she started a GoFundMe campaign to provide bagels and coffee to health care providers at New York- Presbyterian, a fundraiser that’s close to its $6,000 goal. Her effort gained local media attention and drew more backers, leading Puccia to start delivering food to other hospitals in Queens, the outer boroughs, and Fort Totten, a historic military base-turned-FDNY ambulance headquarters.
The money raised to purchase meals for health care providers also supports the local restaurants in which Puccia grew up eating. Additionally, it helps the businesses get more patrons by word of mouth. One pleasant sandwich experience in an ICU prompted workers to call Puccia and ask, “Where can we get more of those sandwiches?”
Luckily, Puccia was ready to help.
Promise to Laugh
A mosaic of Zoom windows lined a computer screen, creating a virtual green room for some of the world’s most beloved comedians. The “Adam” is Adam Sandler. He, along with Jim Gaffigan, Howie Mandel, and other greats, joined together in the hours prior to LaughAid, a fundraiser for those who have lost gigs due to the pandemic. Zoe Friedman ’89 produced the online event with her organization Comedy Gives Back, a nonprofit that provides mental health, medical, and crisis support for stand-up comedians.
The show began on April 4 at 4 p.m. ET, and for eight hours, stand-up comedians, podcast hosts, actors, and talk show hosts performed for viewers, all from the comfort of their own homes. LaughAid provided a window into the lives of comedians, making them relatable in a crisis everyone is experiencing. “It wasn’t scripted, it wasn’t highly produced,” Friedman says. “It was more like a telethon, and it was really interesting to see everybody’s entry point into the program.”
Throughout the event, viewers were encouraged to text a code and donate to Comedy Gives Back.
LaughAid wasn’t a typical feat for anyone involved, and it took some finesse to pull off. Besides some help from a couple of talent producers, Friedman booked the acts herself. And, the day before airing, they had to switch to Zoom because of technical issues. “To produce something like that in quarantine was bonkers,” Friedman says. But the comedy world is foremost a community, and she says the performers are quick to take care of their own. Coupled with everyone being homebound and some unable to work on their usual projects, the lineup filled out fast.
Back in the virtual green room, comics got a taste of the socialization they usually receive by performing in front of an audience. “I didn’t anticipate the connectivity the comics needed,” Friedman says. “It was amazing; they were so excited to see each other.”
→ Comedians who have worked solely in the field for one year, make between $12,000 and $70,000 a year on comedy alone, and have lost at least $500 worth of gigs were eligible for the same amount via Venmo or PayPal. “We wanted to make it easy and we wanted to make it fast,” Zoe Friedman ’89 says.
→ LaughAid raised more than $368,000.
→ More than 4,000 people donated.
→ More than 400 comedians received grants.
The Gloves Are On
With COVID-19 came a stressed personal protective equipment supply chain, including the gloves medical providers wear for patient examinations. Hannah Akre ’16 was in a position to help ease this burden at several hospitals in NYC, a city hard hit by the virus.
Health Goes Global, an organization she cofounded in high school, was built on sending unused examination gloves to resource-limited countries around the world. At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, Akre felt called to support her home country. She reached out to the New York State COVID-19 response team, to whom Health Goes Global sent a stockpile of gloves for distributing to local hospitals.
“[Gloves are] one of the staples of preventative health care,” Akre says. “The number one method of transmission of disease is hand-to-hand contact. It upholds our mission to protect the community, as well as the health care worker, by allowing clinics to protect themselves with gloves.”
The day after speaking with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s team, Akre packed 4,500 gloves into three shipments for New York.
A first-year student at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine, she says the virus outbreak hasn’t deterred her from entering the medical field — it’s furthered her will to help underserved populations.
“I’ve been really inspired to join the medical field and to help my colleagues who are embodying what I think it means to be there for your community, [which includes] making sacrifices and putting yourself on the front line.”
The Masked Hero
Columbia University student Marisol Rios De La Luz, effortlessly patriotic in her spandex suit of red, white, and blue, flies to rescue her native Puerto Rico from imminent danger. For her current mission, she dons a stark white face mask and thick rubber gloves, ready to take on COVID-19’s invasion of her beloved island.
She is, of course, the comic book superhero La Borinqueña, created by Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez ’93. He added the protective gear to her original design to promote Masks For America, a project aimed at gathering funds for public hospitals in Puerto Rico and the United States.
La Borinqueña wasn’t the only superhero involved in Masks For America: The cast of the Avengers series, including Paul Bettany, Don Cheadle, and Chris Evans, helped launch the campaign. Mark Ruffalo was one of the first donors.
Masks For America used the funds raised to partner with a manufacturer and produce KN95 masks, Asia’s more economical equivalent of the N95. The masks were then sent to the places hardest hit by the virus, like New Orleans and New York City. The organization distributed nearly 100,000 masks after one month of operation.
Though Puerto Rico hasn’t had as many cases as other areas of the United States, the territory is still recovering from other hardships, putting it in a difficult position to deal with another disaster. To help his beloved Puerto Rico through the pandemic, Miranda-Rodriguez formed a coalition of 30 doctors working at municipal hospitals who needed supplies, to make sure the KN95s that Masks For America sent to the island landed in the right hands. “[Puerto Rico has gone through] one tragedy after another, from Hurricane Maria to the series of earthquakes that started off this year, and now the COVID-19 pandemic that we’re all suffering globally… It is incredibly inspiring that these doctors have come together in Puerto Rico to join our coalition with Masks For America.”
Bringing Back Salad Days
Nick Kenner ’03, founder and CEO of the global restaurant chain Just Salad, is using his business — and a new venture — to feed others across the United States. Here’s how he’s doing it:
Feeding the families of New York City’s schoolchildren
“The first thing we did was partner with PS 188 in New York City, which is a school that has a lot of underprivileged families. We wanted to provide meals to those families because the public school was not able to provide the same amount of meals to them as prior.”
Donating 10,000 meals per week to health care workers in the Mount Sinai hospital system
“We went to Mount Sinai and said, ‘We want to do something.’ And they basically said, ‘Great. We need a lot of help.’”
Helping people in the NYC area get groceries
“We launched a program called Just Grocery. We were finding it extraordinarily difficult to get delivered groceries, and no one wants to set foot in a store right now. We realized that we had the ability to launch a transactional website that can get our customers anything from freshly prepped, cleaned, washed produce to water, paper towels, toilet paper, and meal kits.”
Agents of Shield
A handful of Colgate alumni came together for the common good: face shields. Walter Steinmann ’79 and Lou Tufford ’80 have partnered together to design, manufacture, and distribute two face shield models: one with a band, and one that fits over the brim of a baseball cap. With Don Wilson ’79, they’re taking the concept into the future.
Steinmann, the mastermind behind the project, started working with plastic as part of his Jan Plan project at Colgate in 1978. He turned it into a 30-year career as a plastics company CEO; he’s now a consultant at Thermo Plastic Tech, a plastic thermoforming facility in Union, N.J., that manufactures items like blister packs and cosmetic packaging. “He was always a Thomas Edison kind of character in our class,” Wilson says.
Now, Steinmann is using the Thermo Plastic Tech facility to make the pieces of 25,000 shields per day, many of which go to first responders, health care providers, and essential workers. “We’ve manufactured the cutting die with the help of a friend who’s a doctor to make sure we were getting exactly what they needed,” he says. The entirely plastic baseball cap shield, patent pending, is derived from a design Steinmann used years ago in another plastics factory he ran. The other model, a banded face shield, is made from plastic, plus foam Steinmann sourced at the beginning of the pandemic.
Tufford runs the business outside of the factory; that includes organizing the distribution for small orders from places like doctor’s offices and small businesses that come in through the website she created, thecovid19faceshield.com. She also provides business and marketing guidance, and she coordinated the donation of 113 shields to Colgate.
Wilson focuses on broader business strategy, pushing Steinmann and Tufford to think about the face shields beyond the next few months. “I’m trying to give them some strategy ideas and figure out how we can get this to expand,” he says. “It’s not a little effort, potentially. It actually could be The Little Engine That Could.”
Wilson sees the pandemic lasting more than just a few months, and he wants the public to be prepared for when that happens. “We see it as a shields-over-masks proposition, where the mask certainly has a role. In some cases, you would never dream of taking the mask off in a medical situation or a virus overload situation, but you also want to have the shield to protect your eyes.”
In addition to the three key players, a small network of Colgate alumni was instrumental in getting the face shields to the places that needed them most, through orders, referrals, and donations.
“The Colgate connection creates an instant bond and an unspoken trust,” Tufford says. “We know the quality is there; we know why we are jumping into this; we know we are in it, not for opportunistic financial gain, but to do the most good for the most people, as quickly as possible.”
Alumni of many professions have been helping their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s what a few more are doing:
→ Jennifer Dowd ’87 and Audrey Morrissey ’89 produced “One World: Together at Home,” a two-hour TV event and fundraiser featuring
musical acts, late-night hosts, and other celebrities.
→ Christina Lyndrup ’90 serves NYC Office of Emergency Management
as the deputy commissioner of external affairs.
→ Laurie McKnight ’82 is a chaplain at Yale New Haven Hospital.
→ Elizabeth Krol ’92, a national client manager for Partner Engineering and Science, Inc., is helping businesses evaluate their workspaces prior to re-occupancy. “Our industrial hygiene team is conducting inspections as well as overseeing cleaning and sanitation to ensure that employees and customers feel safe when their facilities reopen.”
→ PJ Piper ’92, CEO of Far UV Technologies, is working on disinfectant devices to help contain infectious diseases.
→ Andrea Siddons Cedfeldt ’93 is on a COVID-19 physician/resident wellness task force for Oregon Health and Sciences University, in addition to being on the front lines, caring for veterans at the Portland VA Medical Center.
→ Melissa Duncanson ’13, an OB/GYN resident in a Washington, D.C., free clinic serving uninsured pregnant women, spearheaded the program “Moms Produce” with her stimulus check. Many of her patients struggle with food insecurity; to help them during COVID-19, she’s been raising donations to bring fresh produce deliveries to the clinic.
Have you or one of your classmates come to the aid of others during the coronavirus crisis? Let us know on Twitter @colgateuniv.