When Seattle became one of the first cities in the United States to be hit by the pandemic, Ellen Kuwana was one of the first local community members to react to make a difference in her own small way.
Eager to help the healthcare and frontline heroes, Ellen read, thought, and tweeted about how she might be of help to them during these tough times. She says that when her tweet about Taste of India donating a meal went viral within a few minutes of posting – reaching 2.57 million people in a matter of days – the We Got This Seattle (WGTS) movement was born.
To date, it has connected close to 20,000 people at hundreds of organizations with meals and treats – hardly a small impact. We caught up with Ellen virtually during a break in her busy schedule, and here is how she describes the project. Her interview made us believe the Internet can indeed be a good place, and there is so much gratification in small acts of service.
Q: What inspired you to create WGTS?
Being a science journalist, I used to follow UW Virology, UW Medicine, and The Hutch on Twitter, and I got to know that they were processing the COVID-19 tests for Seattle and other nearby places. And I knew how demanding the work is, being a lab researcher myself. The lab researchers were about 80-90 people with 8-hour shifts, with three times around the clock, all seven days of the week. I wanted to shine a light on people who were working for the public and tweeted out to three local pizza places in Seattle asking if they would be interested in sending out a meal of gratitude to UW Virology.
Pagliacci was one of the first to respond within three minutes, which is the beauty of Twitter. Social media became an important tool for me to reach out. I was more than surprised when Pagliacci donated all the meals; when they handed me the receipt, it was almost $500! This became a lot bigger than I could even imagine. By the end of March, I realized I needed to quit my full-time job to keep the WGTS running, and I was more than excited to continue this cause.
Q: In the beginning, how did the donors contact you?
I put up a personal fundraiser on Facebook, and that made rounds when people started sharing the #WeGotThisSeattle hashtag, so I just borrowed that name and then asked friends and family on Facebook if they would like to donate. I was expecting to get some $1,000 from the fundraiser, and I was blown away when I had that amount in under 12 hours. The entire amount raised was $75,000 when the word got out, and I had to start the 501(c)3.
I got invited to join a private group on Facebook, which had the restaurant owners of the International District – and because of the racism about the virus coming from China, there was a lot of misunderstanding among people. I felt strongly involved and ordered mostly from them to support and stand by them. I got involved with Black-owned restaurants as well.
Restaurants had to let their staff go as they were hit badly with the tough economic times. I kept asking if they could donate at such a time, and they all said they wanted to help as much as they could. I called one Mr. Mohammed, the owner for Taste of India in Seattle – a kind soul who’s very actively involved in the community – and he said, “What do you need Ellen? I want to donate it all.” I got so emotional listening to his words as I was under high anxiety at that time, with my husband being a healthcare worker.
I’m proud of the diversity of the restaurants here in Seattle. I asked them to prepare food which is easily eaten, as the medical staff are always eating on the run. And nothing too garlicky as they had masks on all day long! I’m grateful to all these restaurants for donating food.
Q: How many organizations have you donated to so far? Can you share some reactions of the recipients with us?
In April, We Got This Seattle did 137 deliveries, which fed/caffeinated 7,000 frontline workers. I paid out $25,000 of donated funds to local restaurants, and the value of donated goods equals another $55,000 worth of goods by my estimation, for a total of $80,000 value of goods distributed in and near Seattle. In May, we fed/caffeinated 6,000 frontline workers. My best estimate would be that we’ve gotten food and beverages to at least 19,000 essential workers since March 13, 2020.
My number one priority has always been UW Virology, because they are off campus. And as the pandemic was spreading, the restaurants nearby were closing, and they had no place to get food. There were days I was giving 90 meals twice a day. UW Medical Center, Northwest Hospital, Swedish Hospital, and 80 other frontline centers are some of them as well.
I have had many touching reactions. One day I called a mental health service and asked how many staff they had so I could drop off lunch or coffee one day. There was a long pause from the other end, and I thought it got disconnected. I heard some background noise so I asked, “Are you still there?” And I heard a sniffle and a lady said, “I’m crying; I’ve had such a rough day, and I’m overwhelmed that you are so nice. Anything would help.” We all have such tremendous privilege of working from home, and they have the same anxiety that we all have about our families, but it’s exceedingly difficult for them.
Q: How do you feel about your simple act of kindness becoming such a big movement/mission?
I took it one day at a time, and I kept telling myself that I’ll just take one more – and it’s just so gratifying! And everybody felt more thankful. I never thought it would become this big. Early on there was no traffic, so the deliveries happened very smoothly, and it helped tremendously. Being able to communicate what you are doing and why – energizing other people and brightening someone’s day – is all you need. Every donation made by people has helped Seattle restaurants, the economy, and people. It’s all interconnected.
Thank you, Ellen and We Got This Seattle, for the gift of nourishment and care you bring to frontline COVID-19 workers and nonprofit employees. Solid Ground’s Sand Point Housing campus staff were thrilled to receive a delicious delivery of cookies! To donate or get involved, visit the We Got This Seattle website.