Seven Heroes Serving Austin During Coronavirus Outbreak
From stocking local grocery stores to promoting mental health, these leaders stepped up during crisis
Photographs by Taylor Prinsen
Le’Ann Hodges first noticed “blips” on her order sheets in mid-February. As store director for the Clarksville location of Fresh Plus—a 93-year-old Austin grocery chain—she intuited the first ripples of panic-purchasing and immediately increased her orders for household staples by up to 500 percent.
By mid-March, when large grocery chains had lengthy lines and low inventories, Fresh Plus Clarksville was almost fully stocked, with no wait times. During shelter-in-place, average sales skyrocketed by 150 percent, with unprecedented transactions as high as $700. Prioritizing staff and customer safety, Hodges tracked down alternate sources for protective equipment even before quarantine measures were mandated.
“As soon as SXSW was canceled, I knew masks would be tough to find,” she says. “After exhausting every possible resource, I put the word out.”
Within 24 hours, Pastor Bonnie How from Clarksville’s St. Luke United Methodist Church delivered handmade masks from her parishioners. Soon, the store’s 25 employees had two masks each. For Hodges, the gesture confirms her belief that neighborhood grocery stores should be bastions of symbiotic community engagement. Her store has received dozens of gifts and thank you notes since March, helping her team better understand the impact they can have.
“Our staff are so dedicated and selfless and work so hard,” she says, “even under these scary new circumstances.” – Laurel Miller
While Austinites followed shelter-in-place orders, nonprofits like The Other Ones Foundation (TOOF) stepped up for those who didn’t have a place to shelter. With over 2,500 people experiencing homelessness in Travis County, the nonprofit provides low-barrier employment opportunities and personalized case management. In March, TOOF’s community engagement coordinator Max Moscoe helped jumpstart a new initiative called Box of Rain, a mobile hygiene clinic to care for the homeless community during the crisis.
Partnering with the City of Austin and the Central Texas Food Bank, the program distributes weekly supplies; they also deliver essential services like showers, toilets, first aid and clothes. Between late March and early May, the clinics had provided more than 1,197 showers, 4,000 sack lunches and 2,000 grocery bags to six hubs throughout the city.
“This organization is able to pivot to the needs of the community that it serves in an incredibly nimble way,” says Moscoe. “My hope is just that we’ll continue to hear the voices of the people that we work for and serve them as best we can.” – Vanessa Blankenship
Even with 15 years of experience navigating a convoluted immigration system, Jason Finkelman never predicted the legal complexities of a global pandemic. Working with clients from tech and healthcare to higher education and entertainment, he saw the effects reverberate across Austin’s main industries.
In March, his practice pivoted from helping clients hustle for the annual H-1B visa lottery to suddenly mitigating the furlough or firing of current international employees. But what happens when the company tied to your visa downsizes while international borders are closed?
“Of the millions being let go, there’s a large percentage nationwide that not only have to worry about not getting a paycheck, but where is home,” he says.
Walking his clients through available legal options, his goal is to help local companies keep foreign national employees in the country and rehire them as business resumes. For Finkelman, Austin’s economic recovery will depend on its ability to attract and retain international talent.
“We can’t be so narrow-minded to think that immigration is all good or all bad,” he says, “but the more smart people we bring, the more we create local business, which creates more local jobs. I have always believed in our city because it is teeming with people that have hope and believe in doing whatever it takes to make Austin better.” – Hannah J. Phillips
For Karen Ranus, mental health is about the power of human connection. After nearly losing a daughter to suicide nine years ago, Ranus struggled to find support until she discovered a family course through the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI). Taught by NAMI-trained family members of those living with mental illness, the program provided a healing environment through shared experiences.
The way Ranus sees it, data won’t change hearts and minds to the degree that sharing her story can. “[When] there’s a face attached to all those statistics, it becomes real,” she says.
Fast-forward nine years and Ranus is now an executive director at NAMI, currently helping its Central Texas division navigate a global pandemic. At a time when personal interaction is more important than ever, her top priority is encouraging continued connection despite social distancing. In March, NAMI worked to quickly transfer its vital classes and resources to a digital setting for people managing their mental health journey from home.
“Families Together,” a free course for people with loved ones struggling with mental illness, is just one of many webinars, classes and support groups now available online. Ultimately, Ranus believes that working on relationships will not only help deepen empathy and gratitude, but also provide opportunities to talk more positively and proactively about mental health moving forward. – Vanessa Blankenship
Michelle Simmons and Will Roman
Slow North and Chisos
Days after shuttering her home goods shop, Slow North, Michelle Simmons saw a Facebook post soliciting mask donations for local medical employees. While her first concern was supporting her now-furloughed staff, Simmons also wanted to give back. Within two days, her team was sewing masks from home with fabric from their personal supplies and wholesale vendors. Meeting the needed mask quota within a week, they started sewing for other Central Texas healthcare groups.
“This was before we even considered accepting contributions to help us cover costs,” Simmons says. “It just felt like something we needed to do.”
Fortunately, an unexpected sponsor stepped in to help. A friend of Simmons and fellow small-business owner Will Roman didn’t hesitate to launch a donation page for materials and labor.
“My goal was to get 200 masks paid for by the end of March,” says Roman, who owns Austin-based handcrafted boot company Chisos. “We met that number our first week.”
After sewing 975 masks, Slow North switched to a “buy one, give one” model in April, while Chisos launched “Do Right, Love Texas” T-shirts to benefit struggling small businesses statewide.
“There’s something that gets triggered in the human psyche when disaster happens,” Roman says. “It’s deeper than competition, and it binds us together and reminds us that we need each other.” – Laurel Miller
While pandemic-induced anxiety and isolation pose a special risk to those struggling with addiction, Wes Hurt believes the foundations of recovery provide tools to cope with a lost sense of control. “In theory, [those in recovery] couldn’t be more prepared,” he says. “We couldn’t control alcohol. We couldn’t control drugs. We can’t control corona.”
Hurt is the CEO of CLEAN Cause, an energy drink brand he founded in 2015 following his own fight with addiction. In April, the brand added zero-sugar, zero-calorie flavors to its lineup of organic and non-GMO yerba mate-caffeinated drinks. Launching a new product during a pandemic presented challenges, but because recovery encourages an acceptance of things you cannot change, Hurt moved forward to fulfill CLEAN Cause’s mission.
Donating 50 percent of profits toward sober-living scholarships, CLEAN Cause helps those in early recovery cross what Hurt calls the “bridge from rehab to reintegration.” So far, the scholarships have helped more than 1,200 recipients reintroduce the responsibilities and potential pitfalls of life in early sobriety.
Meanwhile, Hurt found ways to bypass isolation and forge much-needed connections for those who may be struggling. One example: signs with messages like “Never Give Up” popped up around Austin, encouraging people to email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“If anyone out there is struggling with suicidal thoughts or addiction,” he says, “hit me up now.” – Aaron Parsley