Making a difference

The people and organizations stepping up during a challenging year.
Jenna Arcidiacono, owner of Amore Trattoria Italiana, turned her restaurant’s parking lot into a takeout drive-thru. Photo by Bryan Esler

Editor’s note: This is an introduction to a four-part series of people and organizations making a difference in Grand Rapids. Check out some of the people stepping up during a challenging 2020.

Where are the Black people? 

Food hugs

Plasma: The cutting edge of COVID-19 research 

The road to reclamation 

This year started out like any other, but by mid-March, it became apparent that it would be anything but an ordinary year. 2020 will go down in history for two things: COVID-19 and the protests against racism taking place across the country and resulting anti-racism efforts growing in cities.

While this year has brought a flurry of challenges, it also has shown the resiliency that we are capable of. It has been filled with stories of sadness and of inspiration, from breweries retooling to make hand sanitizer, individuals who began making masks for their family and friends, health care personnel who risked their own safety to care for others, individuals who joined protests for the first time, artists who sought to inspire and heal with their work, and so much more. In our Making a Difference feature, we wanted to focus on a few of the stories that are inspiring us here in West Michigan.

When the pandemic first took hold of the country, restaurants were one of the hardest-hit industries by the stay-at-home orders. Initial predictions were that one in three would close due to the pandemic. Forced to switch to takeout-only service overnight, they had to adapt immediately to a new world. Jenna Arcidiacono, owner of Amore Trattoria Italiana, turned her restaurant’s parking lot into a takeout drive-thru. Clad in masks and with buckets of hand sanitizer at the ready, her servers took orders and delivered food to lines of cars night after night. But what really stood out was that even while her restaurant struggled to transition and stay afloat, Arcidiacono was looking out for the frontline workers who were testing and treating COVID-19 patients and putting themselves in harm’s way day after day by providing them with meals. For several weeks, Arcidiacono delivered meals to frontline workers throughout the community as an acknowledgement of their efforts and to simply say “we see you.” Arcidiacono has always exhibited a charitable side and used her restaurant for good but doing so while her restaurant’s longevity was in jeopardy was what was so inspiring.

While saving lives is the job at Spectrum Health, typically doctors, nurses and staff aren’t asked to put their own life at risk on a daily basis, but when COVID-19 hit, that’s exactly what happened. Everyone from the janitorial staff to the top emergency room doctors and nurses were asked to put themselves at risk for others. The hospitals jumped into action, including with a plasma donation program. The program became part of the larger Mayo Clinic plasma study. In addition to the doctors and researchers involved in the program are the patients recovering from COVID-19, who donated their plasma to help others heal and allowed the researchers to study the effects of plasma on sick patients. Their donations helped save lives and helped researchers quickly move forward with treatments.

News that COVID-19 was hitting Black and brown communities disproportionately was not surprising to the members of those communities, who have long been aware of the disparities that exist in health and health care. Pre-existing conditions or comorbidities are a major factor in someone’s chances of recovering from COVID-19. The Grand Rapids African American Task Force has long been a force for change in Grand Rapids and the group quickly stepped up, receiving funding for its GrassrootsUP project, which will gather data from multiple sources and stories of lived experiences to create a comprehensive report on the health and well-being of the Grand Rapids African American community. The report and corresponding online presence then will be the foundation for a series of digital community conversations and organizing efforts, including the ongoing need for COVID-19 education and resources within the community.

The group also is working to elevate the important stories of Grand Rapids’ often-overlooked Black residents and to reinvigorate neighborhood groups to help with community improvement projects.

Systemic racism has long hindered Black and brown community members from obtaining capital and benefitting from economic investment. This summer, as the protests over the killings of several men and women continued in cities across the country, local groups have not only focused on policing and the justice system but the need for more investment in Black-owned businesses. Preston Sain got the idea to spearhead Black Wallstreet Grand Rapids, an effort to acquire and develop real estate into Black business districts. The project is named after the original Black Wall Street, an area in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Black-owned businesses thrived during the early 1900s, until white residents burned the entire neighborhood to the ground in 1921. With the 100-year-anniversary of this massacre taking place next year, Sain hopes to jump start the effort with projects already in the works, like Southtown Market, a fresh food market on the city’s southeast side.

In spotlighting these individuals, organizations and projects, we wanted to show how individuals in our community have turned tremendously painful times into inspiration
for change.

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