MIDDLESEX - For an organization rooted in face-to-face networking and luncheon-style meetings, the Reading Rotary Club certainly pivoted with ease to the COVID-19 world.
Thanks to that somewhat seamless technological transition, members of the service organization have found themselves boosting morale and community spirit as the viral outbreak sidelined many of the region’s other non-profit entities and fraternal organizations.
Rotary Club members are also stepping into the lurch as the pandemic and the emergency response to it have shifted severe operational restrictions and financial strains onto the town’s local business owners, who have historically always gladly stepped forward to foot the bill for such causes.
“We’re trying to be more visible and people are now approaching rotary to ask us to help out with things,” said Reading Rotary Club member and spokesman Tim Kelley in a recent interview.
“Local residents and businesses, they’re always the first to step up and lend a helping hand when asked. We’re focusing on doing what we can do now to help out in these uncertain times,” continued Kelley. “Thankfully, we’re in a position from previous fundraising campaigns to help out to a certain extent.”
In the most recent initiative, Reading Rotary Club members late last month were able to gift stud earrings to health care staff and other essential workers at the Residence at Pearl Street nursing home and the town’s Artis Senior Living facility.
Though planning for the event took some time, the little act of kindness couldn’t have been timed better, as the elder care facility workers were heralded for their vocational dedication after a particularly brutal wave of COVID-19 outbreaks swept through hundreds of the state’s long-term care centers.
In Reading alone, the novel coronavirus has claimed the lives at least 33 citizens, many of whom have been identified by the Board of Health as elderly residents. Like elder care facilities across Massachusetts, many of the town’s 309 COVID-19 cases can also be traced back to area nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
“We saw this gift to the workers at Pearl Street to be a way to say that the community appreciates all their service to our vulnerable seniors,” said Rotary Club President Mike Collins of the campaign, in which hospital-sanctioned single-stud earrings were handed out to the essential workers.
According to Reading Rotary Club member Ed Sartell, local rotarians besides getting a chance to celebrate local nursing home staff were also able to herald a noteworthy charitable effort launched by Reading Memorial High School (RMHS) senior Cole Vultaggio to honor healthcare personnel.
Specifically, the 18-year-old launched the Stat Studs jewelry company after convincing her father, contractor Paul Vultaggio, to help her raise money for front-line medical workers.
“Stat Studs is geared towards adding a sense of fashion to those working in the medical field. However, when the COVID-19 crisis suddenly hit, it became apparent that Stat Studs was far more than just a fashion accessory,” explained the rotary club official.
“This campaign is specifically for the nurses and health care workers on the front line fighting the COVID-19 crisis. It is a way to give back to those who are putting their own lives at risk to save those who are in dire need,” Kelley added, explaining that all proceeds from earring purchases are donated to the American Nurses Foundation’s COVID-19 response fund.
Sartell, a longtime friend of Paul Vultaggio, initially got involved after receiving a phone call from the local father, who was looking for help finding contacts with local nursing homes.
As chance would have it, Sartell and his fellow Rotarians had all the right connections, as the Residence at Pearl Street had generously allowed the service club to use a meeting space for free within the nursing home for years.
According to Kelley, though local Rotary Club officials had no idea just how bad the pandemic would become, their connections to the Residence at Pearl Street played a big role in convincing members about the wisdom of using online tools like video-conferencing service Zoom.
Specifically, back in early March, as it became clear the virus was gaining a foothold in the state, the local service organization were able to witness first-hand just how volatile the situation was becoming on a day-to-day basis.
“We’ve been meeting at the Residence at Pearl Street for the past couple of years for free, and they’ve always been supportive of Reading Rotary,” he explained. “[Aging adults] seemed to be a vulnerable population, so in the second week of March or so, we asked [Director Nancy Lordan to see if we could still go there].”
“[Her answer] was if you have a cough, don’t come in.” But that quickly changed within a day or so to, ‘Well, maybe you should find another place,’ and then to, ‘We’re shutting down and the residents’ children can’t even come in anymore,’” recalled Kelley.
Because they transitioned so quickly to holding virtual meetings through the use of technology, Rotary Club officials were able to jump in to help when many other organizations were still reacting to the rapidly changing situation on the ground.
Besides printing and posting signs around town paying homage to first responders and health care workers, the Rotary Club also began purchasing meals on a regular basis from a Reading-based restaurant. Members after picking up their food would then return home to eat while meeting via Zoom with fellow Rotarians for a business meeting or other social gathering.
Also last month, the Rotary Club was able to print up hundreds of posters of individual members of the RMHS Class of 2020.
The initiative, arranged at the behest of Reading parent Kathy Kinney, culminated with a secret gathering of RMHS senior class officers and staff advisors by Town Hall, where each sign was planted in neat rows with the message, “We Love Our Seniors, Reading Memorial High School Class of 2020.”
“As the events traditionally held for the graduating seniors are being cancelled, postponed or reimagined, parents brought the idea to honor seniors visually in a central location in town to Rotary, who happily agreed to be the sponsor for the signs,” the service organization explained in a prepared statement last month.
According to Kelley, Rotary Club members have also been working closely throughout the pandemic with the Reading Food Pantry to help those facing food insecurity during the quarantine. Each week, members make a weekly run to the Greater Boston Food Bank for the local pantry and help with outreach efforts.