Community over COVID-19

Parke County businesses tackle challenges created by global pandemic

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A customer recently paid $100 for dinner from Parke County’s Mecca Tavern. He refused his change – he wanted it to help pay for the dozens of lunch guests the tavern would have the next day.

Around the world, schools, sports stadiums, and countless other businesses and venues shuttered suddenly to mitigate the new coronavirus outbreak that to date has infected more than 1.2 million worldwide and killed more than 10,000 in the U.S. The pandemic spread with ferocity on a scale not seen in more than a century and created new challenges for families and communities large and small. In Parke County, businesses that started providing support to offset services lost because of the coronavirus were immediately bolstered by civic groups, churches, and other volunteers to strengthen the impact beyond initial plans to benefit more people beyond their towns.

Tavern to Table

The pandemic’s escalation caused several Midwestern states, including Indiana, to close schools in the middle of March to prevent infection spread. Mecca Tavern owner Brad Sanders, who also coaches varsity football at Parke County’s Riverton Parke Junior-Senior High School, realized it could jeopardize many children who rely on schools for meals.

Mecca Tavern announced on social media that it would provide free lunch to children in the town – and the business immediately received support from other local groups and businesses. Churches, families, and organizations in Mecca, Ind., offered money or volunteered to help make lunches for more than 45 children each day.

They have fun with the lunches, drawing smiling faces and writing encouraging messages on meal bags. The lunch group even featured coloring contests with prizes. When the tavern started offering to-go meals to comply with social distancing, some customers paid more money and wanted it to go toward the new lunch program.

“It quickly took off,” said Sanders, who owns Mecca Tavern with his wife. “The whole community has helped out with this. We’ve had people from outside of town who haven’t been here in years call to donate money or donate food.”

Some groups gave money. Farmers offered fruit and vegetables. Amish families even provided 30 dozens of eggs. The volunteers had enough money and supplies to extend beyond the lunch program.

Volunteers cooked and delivered meals to elderly residents who are at risk of life-threatening illness from the coronavirus. The Mecca-Wabash Township Volunteer Fire Department and Mecca Ladies Auxiliary also partnered with Mecca Tavern to create a food pantry for local residents.

“It has been a total community effort,” Sanders said. “We’ve had so many people reach out, it has just been amazing.”

Sewing Support

Local business owners helped in other ways. Mary Nicola, who co-owns G & M Variety in Rockville with her husband, saw a social media post with instructions on making facemasks and learned that there would be a potential need for first responders. She contacted a local seamstress who helped select and cut materials. Nicola then wrote a social media post seeking volunteers to sew masks and for the urgent need for elastic, a vital material for the masks.

“It was almost an immediate response to a request for seamstresses and elastic,” said Nicola, who had 10 seamstresses volunteer to help make masks. “They’ve just gone above and beyond, and some of them are even donating their own fabric.”

Rachel Engel, the owner of Urban Farmchic in Rockville, spoke with Nicola and partnered in the effort. Engel and her mother had already been sewing masks after learning about the protective equipment shortage from Engel’s cousin, an emergency room physician at a hospital in Fort Smith, Ark. Engel and her mother developed a system to create about 100 masks per day.

“So far everyone has been taking about 30 to 40 masks each time,” Engel said of organizations that have picked up completed masks. “That seems like a lot, but at that same time it’s nothing compared to what they need.”

Urban Farmchic and G & M Variety have made masks for a variety of businesses, including clinics, hospitals, and home health care providers. Yet, masks also have been created for volunteers providing lunch for children home from school, veterinarians, and additional essential businesses including grocery stores, with employees interacting with the public. Masks have been donated to organizations in Clinton, Terre Haute, and Greencastle in Indiana, and additional groups and organizations in Missouri and Illinois.

Local organizations also have donated fabric for the masks, which has been helpful since many fabric and elastic suppliers have closed because of the pandemic, Engel said. There even have been times when Engel has dropped off completed masks in a box in front of her store – a way that she can provide the masks while respecting social distancing – and noticed that someone has donated fabric or other materials for new masks to be made.

“This community has always been very supportive of the local businesses,” Nicola said, “and everybody has always worked well together.”

The social distancing has impacted Nicola’s and Engel’s businesses. Engel closed Urban Farmchic, a boutique offering clothing and home goods, while G&M Variety, a five-and-dime store that offers food items and other essentials, has stayed open but modified its hours, as social distancing led to a significant reduction in foot traffic.

Engel has been able to spend more time to sew the face masks, which has helped her cope with the sudden changes and stress imposed by the coronavirus.

“This I can control. I can make as many as people need,” Engel said of making masks during the social distancing measures. “It helps me get through the day too, because it has been difficult.”


Photo:  (Submitted photo)

Several lunch bags on the counter at Mecca Tavern. Volunteers and organizations supported Mecca Tavern to make lunches for local children after schools were closed for the academic year in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Photo:  (Submitted photo)

A group of masks sewed by Urban Farmchic to donate to local organizations. Rachel Engel, the owner of Urban Farmchic, and her mother partnered with Mary and Gary Nicola, owners of G & M Variety, to create face masks for first responders and people who are working and interacting with others during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo: (Submitted photo)

Urban Farmchic owner Rachel Engel, who with her mom sewed and donated face masks to a variety of businesses in West Central Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas. Urban Farmchic and G & M Variety, a five and dime store in Rockville, donated materials and helped sew face masks for volunteers and workers at a variety of businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.