Alumni Heading RIPTA, Meals on Wheels Collaborate to Get Food to Seniors

Applying their Roger connections and lessons from their studies, alumni and staff work together to deliver food to seniors and others at higher risk during COVID-19

By Jill Rodrigues '05
RIPTA driver delivers a meal to a homebound senior.
RIPTA has partnered with Meals on Wheels Rhode Island to help deliver meals to homebound seniors. Image Credit: Courtesy of RIPTA

PAWTUCKET, R.I. – People around the region have been sheltering in their homes to prevent exposure and spread of COVID-19, venturing out carefully to restock essential supplies such as groceries. But for those most vulnerable to the virus, they may not be able to risk a trip to get milk and eggs.

That’s where some Roger Williams University alumni and dining services have stepped up to fill a critical need in our local communities.

Shortly after Rhode Island’s stay-at-home order went into effect, the two alumni leading the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) and Meals on Wheels Rhode Island saw a unique opportunity to partner in helping homebound seniors. RIPTA CEO Scott Avedisian ’11 reached out to fellow Hawk, Meals on Wheels Executive Director Meghan Grady ’08 – both graduates of RWU’s Master of Public Administration program – offering to provide drivers and vehicles from the paratransit division to assist in getting meals out to the elderly quarantining in their homes. Thanks to their Roger Williams connection, Avedisian and Grady had already been developing ways to connect their public services prior to the pandemic, so it only took a quick phone call to make this one happen.

“The network of Roger Williams alumni has given a lot of us an ability to, even if we weren’t in class together, have that connection that you can build upon. Whether it be networking events or knowing somebody else who went through the program and you can reach out to them, there’s a lot of ways Roger Williams lets us collaborate with one another,” Avedisian said.

RIPTA driver delivers a meal.With ridership down from 58,000 to 14,000 people a day, Avedisian said RIPTA looked for ways to “productively help the community” and give employees a feeling that they were making a meaningful impact during this challenging time.

The offer couldn’t have come at a better time, as Meals on Wheels R.I. saw “a huge increase” in the need for meals, Grady said. Prior to the pandemic, they had been serving 1,200 people a day, but now are serving approximately 4,000 seniors each day, primarily distributed by volunteers using their own vehicles.

For the past few weeks, RIPTA drivers have been stopping by Meals on Wheels headquarters in Providence to load the meals they’ll deliver along their scheduled transport routes. As they drop off the meals at the front door, the driver often gets a thank you or thumbs up from homebound seniors (at a distance). They delivered 125 meals just in the first week in the Pawtucket area where the nonprofit had the biggest gap in volunteer services.

“For a young driver named David, on the second stop he made to deliver food, a woman told him he was the only person she’d see that day. So when you can have an impact like that, it’s pretty impressive,” Avedisian said.

“We are incredibly grateful to all of the individuals that have stepped up to help us serve seniors, especially RIPTA, and we really consider everyone who is working on behalf of our mission to be delivery heroes,” Grady said.

A Time to Serve

Other Hawks have also responded with a desire to step up and do more.

As marketing manager at Feast & Fettle, Sarah MacDougall ’19 helped her company navigate ways to assist their vulnerable clientele and local businesses to make it through the quarantine order. MacDougall, who graduated with a marketing degree from RWU, said the prepared-meals service, based in East Providence, started by asking their clients how they could help them during this time.

“A lot of our members are elderly and (at) high-risk (to the virus) and were concerned about leaving their homes. They requested eggs, milk, coffee – things we could add to the meal service so they didn’t have to leave the house,” said MacDougall.

Feast and Fettle employee loads meals into a van.With these needs in mind, Feast & Fettle partnered with local bakeries, farms, and grocery suppliers, such as Wright’s Farm, New Harvest Coffee, and PVDonuts. They saw orders grow by over 50 percent and now serve 450 subscribers weekly. To meet the demand, the company has hired eight new employees, many of whom were recently unemployed from the pandemic.

MacDougall has been with the company since its beginnings in 2018, starting with a for-credit internship where she helped promote events and build partnerships with local businesses. After she completed an intensive advertising campaigns practicum, culminating in pitching a comprehensive marketing plan for a real client in the National Student Advertising Competition (NSAC), in her senior year, MacDougall returned to Feast & Fettle with all she had learned and landed a full-time job, first managing their social media and now as marketing manager.

“When I did NSAC with Professor Matos, I really got to experience advertising and I was obsessed. I have the rest of my career to thank for that program,” she said. “During that time, I learned about all the advertising opportunities that Feast & Fettle could be doing, so I went back to them after I graduated and said, hey, I learned all this stuff beyond partnerships, about branding, advertising, and social media.”

Now as a young marketer, MacDougall is finding it truly rewarding to help the company respond to the needs of its clients as well as serving the local communities. “It’s been the nature of our business to support the community since day one,” she added.

Meanwhile, Roger Williams dining services has also been lending a helping hand to get much-needed food to the local community.

RWU dining staff member helps distribute food to community members.
Don Fitting, an RWU dining staff manager, is helping Hope & Main distribute food to vulnerable community members. Photo credit: Rupert Whiteley

Don Fitting, a dining services manager at RWU and local community member, has been serving as volunteer captain for Hope & Main’s Nourish Our Neighbors Program, providing healthy meals to vulnerable East Bay families and seniors. With Fitting’s help, the program has safely distributed nearly 3,000 meals to the food insecure community. He’s also assisted the Warren nonprofit in setting up as a meal distribution site for the Bristol-Warren School District while schools are closed.

“Donnie has stepped naturally into this vital leadership role as a compassionate champion for food access for the community! He has been a calming presence for staff here who ordinarily don't manage these kinds of complex food prep and distribution efforts,” said Lisa Raiola, President & Founder of Hope & Main and a Trustee at RWU.“We so appreciate Donnie and the fact that Roger Williams is able to support the East Bay community and local families during this time of enormous need. Nourish our Neighbors would not be possible without the RWU partnership!”