​Q&A with Erin Guth:

Chicago Area COVID-19 Front Line Hero Meal Trains Co-Founder

Illinois Emergency Medicine Specialists (IEMS) family members, Erin Zerth and Erin Guth, wanted to find a way to support the healthcare heroes who courageously put the fear and wellbeing of themselves and their families aside to help the most vulnerable. What started as the efforts of two women quickly became a community movement. Using mealtrain.com they organized the first meal delivery at two IEMS-staffed ERs but almost immediately people started reaching out to see how they could support the heroes in their own communities.

We connected with Erin Guth, co-founder of the Chicago Area COVID-19 Front Line Hero Meal Trains group to ask more about their impact on the local Chicago area.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit more about what was going on in your community and at home that made you decide to start organizing this effort?

A: At the beginning, everything but the most essential businesses were shut down and people were stuck, scared and helpless, at home. This outbreak was unlike any our generation had ever seen and guidance, equipment, personnel and space were all in short supply. Erin Zerth and I wanted to find a way to support the healthcare heroes who courageously put the fear and wellbeing of themselves and their families aside to help the most vulnerable. One of our husbands suggested that the way to HIS heart is through his stomach so…the idea was born.

Q: What made you decide to use mealtrain.com and can you explain a little bit about how that process works?

A: Our community often uses mealtrain.com to show support when someone is sick or has a baby, so it seemed like the best way to organize efforts, communicate needs, and spread the support to make sure as many heroes as possible felt the love! In addition, since restaurants were shuttered and struggling, the purchase and delivery of meals funneled revenues to local businesses and delivery drivers. Win-win-win! For a play by play as to how the meal trains work, check out the FAQ section on our Facebook page. This was a VERY common question from our subscribers!

Q: How did you get started and what was your original goal? What made you decide to mobilize your entire community?

A: The first meal trains were at two IEMS-staffed ERs (each program needs admin approval and an in-house contact and our networks are primarily at our husbands’ hospitals), but almost immediately people started reaching out to see how they could support the heroes in their own communities. Everyone felt this tremendous sense of gratitude for first responders, yet powerless to help. This initiative gave them the opportunity to show their support in whatever ways they could: by organizing meal trains, providing meals or promoting the trains within their community.

Q: How much time did you spend initially coordinating the meal-trains and getting the program set up?

A: At the beginning it was around the clock. The more trains we set up and the more people we reached, the more people responded seeking help to start their own. As the weeks went by and the admins managed their individual trains, our roles shifted to troubleshooting, ‘global program management’ and promotion/marketing.

Q: How did you do most of your outreach and how did you communicate with other volunteers and the hospitals? I know there is an awesome Facebook group. Was most of your outreach via FB or did you use other forms of social media or communication?

A: Facebook is familiar to both of us so it seemed like a natural avenue for communication. When we started our main page and people saw the incredible response we were getting, various news outlets began contacting us to help spread the word and provide a “feel good story” during a very bleak time. For many, we used our husbands’ and our own contacts to find sources within the hospitals that would help initiate and manage the meal trains. Many more people in other communities had their own networks, or contacted the hospitals directly through their volunteer departments. Sometimes we were able to find and connect those who wanted to help with those who appreciated the support via email, phone and our FB page.

Q: Did you ever expect when you started the FB group to get the kind of response you would from the community?

A: While I’m in constant awe of the wonderful humans that live in our community, I don’t think any of us could’ve possibly predicted the impact this little meal train thing would have.

Q: Did the hospital staff know that food was going to be delivered to them or was it a surprise? If it was a surprise, what were some of the reactions?

A: Please check out the pictures posted on the website of staff in full hazmat garb holding thank you notes. I dare you not to tear up! Most caught wind fairly quickly that meals were being delivered, and their immense gratitude is apparent even through the many layers of PPE. Sometimes, particularly at the beginning, staff didn’t have the opportunity to leave their department to find food so this was the only way they could eat.

Q: Did you ever get to deliver the food yourself and, if so, what was the response?

A: Unfortunately the “safe handling and delivery” procedures didn’t allow home cooked meals or personal deliveries, but since they exist to protect the drivers and staff we heard few complaints.

Q: Did you ever deliver anything other than food? Were there other needs outside of food like coffee or notes of encouragement that your group provided for our healthcare workers?

A: Some departments are absolutely enormous. Since the vast majority of us can’t afford to provide a meal to all at once, interested individuals could sign up to bring bagels, coffee, treats and snacks instead.

Q: Are there any messages of support or appreciation that you received or delivered that you can share with us and would be ok with us making public, such as using a quote, for example?

A: Our page is public and you can absolutely pull from there if you see a picture or a message that you’d like to republish. Otherwise, we can also look at individual meal trains to pull messages that hospital contacts or admins have posted to thank their volunteers.

Q: How many hospitals did you ultimately deliver meals to? Do you know how many healthcare workers you fed in total over the length of your efforts?

A: “ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY THOUSAND MEALS were committed to healthcare staff throughout Chicagoland. ONE MILLION, TWO HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS in restaurant revenues were generated for local businesses. SEVENTY NINE departments in hospitals, urgent care centers, fire stations and nursing homes throughout the city and suburbs were supported. Over FOUR THOUSAND deliveries were made.” (Most trains stopped at the end of May so our last calculation was on June 1st.) Learn more from our Facebook Group

Q: To educate others, what advice or instruction would you give to individuals who might want to start their own program in their own community? Where should they start?

A: If you’re moved to make any type of positive change in your community, there are sure to be others who feel the same. Don’t be afraid to speak up and find them. Although it doesn’t hurt to know people, there are no special skills required beyond the desire to help. (I’m the perfect example of this!) Although none of our meal trains are currently active, our FB page has a list of FAQs that should help explain the process

Q: Are you still coordinating meal trains now? How are things in the community now? Will you be ready to pick it back up again, if needed, in the Fall and where can people reach you if they want to help?

A: Although we don’t have a vaccine or an ‘end date’ yet, many of us are starting to see at least a dim light at the end of the tunnel. That being said, the virus is nowhere near eradicated and there are still hundreds of thousands of healthcare heroes that go to work every day in an effort to keep us healthy and safe. If anyone is ever interested in starting a meal train in their community, Erin Zerth and I promise to help in any way we can.

To learn more and follow our story, join the Chicago Area Covid-19 Front Line Hero Meal Trains Facebook Group. Get started in your community by visiting www.mealtrain.com/essential.