Bucknellians Fuel Front-line Workers During the Pandemic
by Monica Baeckstrom Toomey ’89

COVID-19 has changed life for all of us, and whether you are on the front lines or staying home, it has brought a new level of uncertainty and fear to daily life. We may feel hopeless or helpless at times, but how we view and react to our circumstances is always our choice. I am grateful to have Bucknell friends who always try to find solutions and remain positive rather than focusing on things that are out of their control. During the pandemic, some alumnae friends and I chose to serve our communities by each starting a Front Line Appreciation Group (FLAG) initiative, which bring meals to the front-line medical community while also supporting local restaurants.

Monica Baeckstrom Toomey ’89, Tammy Farrow Greenspan ’89 and Shelly Ayres Osterberg ’89 got together at their 30th reunion in 2019
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From left: Monica Baeckstrom Toomey ’89, Tammy Farrow Greenspan ’89 and Shelly Ayres Osterberg ’89 got together at their 30th Reunion in 2019.
I have been best friends with Tammy Farrow Greenspan ’89 and Shelly Ayres Osterberg ’89 since our Bucknell days. We lived together in Washington, D.C., after graduating, but then life took us in different directions, and we now live in Michigan, Maryland and Massachusetts. We have always been committed to our friendship no matter what life stage we are in, making sure to scheduled girls’-weekend getaways at least once a year, and often more — we attended our 30th Reunion together in 2019. In addition, Shelly and I have worked together for the last four years as consultants with Rodan + Fields, which has been so rewarding. Many of the skills we’ve developed from running our businesses have helped us understand the power of social media, leading to the early success of our FLAG Facebook groups.

The mission of FLAG is to offer support and meals to front-line medical staff, to help restaurants stay in business and to provide a way for people to help without leaving their homes. These social-media-based groups enable people to not only donate but to become part of a larger, connected community. Groups serve as a positive light amid much uncertainty, as places to connect, lift one another up and bring hope.

The FLAG model is simple and effective: We collect donations (typically $10 to $20) and then pool the money to purchase meals from local restaurants that deliver the meals to hospitals. Hospital staffs working 12-hour shifts have limited access to healthy meals and toil under stressful conditions. The meals offer both physical and mental support. In addition, the funds help local restaurants stay in business — a blessing to the local economy.

I was the first member of my group of Bucknell friends to learn about FLAG from a friend of a friend and shared the idea with some neighbors in Bloomfield Hills, a suburb of Detroit. It was easy to see how the model could be launched successfully in Metro Detroit, an area that desperately needed help.

The beauty of FLAG is that the mission and model can be duplicated and modified to fit any location. FLAG Metro Detroit has the largest scope of any FLAG organization, encompassing 43 hospitals and 18 subacute care facilities across multiple counties. This spring we were in a COVID hot spot, and the need was intense and relentless. Since launching March 23, our Facebook community has more than 23,000 members. As of early July, we had raised more than $370,00, delivered more than 50,000 meals and paid local restaurants more than $350,000, supporting 104 restaurants. You can learn more at flagmetrodetroit.org or join our Facebook group at FLAG Metro Detroit.

After I launched FLAG Metro Detroit, Shelly and I began talking about the impact of FLAG and how it could easily be duplicated in Boston. Shelly didn’t waste time; she rallied her local friends and launched FLAG Boston on March 31. Her group raised and spent $47,685 and delivered 5,506 meals to 39 different hospitals and health care facilities, supporting 55 different restaurants. Learn more at flagboston.com.

Another Bucknellian to join the FLAG movement is Erica Lieberwirth Baittinger ’93. A founder of FLAG Lehigh Valley, she has that amazing Bucknell quality of serving others when it’s most needed. Her group also started March 31 and by early July had raised $22,530 in donations, delivered 3,045 meals and paid $22,528 to local restaurants. Learn more at flag-lv.org or join FLAG of the Lehigh Valley on Facebook.

The next friend to jump in was Tammy Farrow Greenspan. Though she still works full time at Oracle and runs another nonprofit, she teamed up with some friends this spring and launched FLAG Potomac, Md. The group soon began collecting funds and scheduling meals. You can learn more at churchillboosterclub.org/2020/04/13/flag-fundraiser.

During the COVID crisis Tammy and her husband, Scott, redirected their nonprofit KINDH (which they started 19 years ago to deliver holiday gifts and food to kids in the Washington, D.C., area) to collect money to help local families purchase food during these difficult times. In the first few days, they delivered $25 gift cards to 49 local families. They continue to help more families through KINDH (KINDH.org).

The saying goes that you are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with. That axiom has always reminded me of just how important it is to pick your close friends wisely. I had no idea back in the late ’80s that my friendships would carry so much weight in my future. Yet looking back over the years, it is obvious how much our similar positive and passionate approaches to life have kept us glued to one another and made us best of friends. That shared sense of responsibility found in so many Bucknellians has led us to help our communities with the FLAG initiative during this pandemic.

If you are interested in launching your own FLAG, please visit flag2020.org and get ready to make a difference in your own community. Together, we will rise.