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As COVID-19 ravages Rhode Island, a small nonprofit feeds 37,000 people a week

‘Maybe this year we all don’t need 1,000 gifts,’ the Rev. George L. Ortiz Jr. said. ‘Let’s make sure that people to the left and the right of us can eat and keep the lights on.’

The Rev. George L. Ortiz Jr., co-founder of the Elisha Project, says his group was feeding 500 people a week before the pandemic and now it's feeding 37,000 a week. He looks over some of the food on hand. The Pawtucket warehouse is filled with food and material goods which are boxed and shipped out to those in need including COVID-19 patients.
The Rev. George L. Ortiz Jr., co-founder of the Elisha Project, says his group was feeding 500 people a week before the pandemic and now it's feeding 37,000 a week. He looks over some of the food on hand. The Pawtucket warehouse is filled with food and material goods which are boxed and shipped out to those in need including COVID-19 patients.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

PAWTUCKET, R.I. — In 2011, the Rev. George L. Ortiz Jr. and his wife, Carrie Samboy Ortiz, took the $48.50 they had to their name, made 24 bagged lunches, and fed the hungry outside the Crossroads Rhode Island homeless shelter in Providence.

From those humble beginnings, their Providence-based nonprofit food rescue operation grew to the point that it was feeding 500 people per week.

Since the pandemic hit, the need has grown exponentially. And now that Rhode Island has the highest COVID-19 infection rate in the United States, the Elisha Project is rapidly ramping up to meet the rising need, feeding an estimated 37,000 people per week.

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The nonprofit received a $176,000 contract from the state Department of Health to provide “Rhode Island Cares” boxes of food and personal protective equipment to those under quarantine. It landed a $55,000 contract from the state Office of Healthy Aging to provide two weeks’ worth of food to senior citizens stuck at home amid the pandemic. Meanwhile, demand is mounting among the 40 organizations the group serves regularly.

Ortiz sees that the pandemic taking a toll not just in densely populated cities such as Central Falls and Providence, but also in suburbs and rural towns such as Warwick, Warren, Narragansett, and Burrillville.

“For me, that has been the shock,” he said. “We see a lot of families that normally don’t come to food pantries. I’m getting calls from educated women in the suburbs saying, ‘Can I volunteer and, once I volunteer, can I get a box of food?’ "

Boxes of squash wait to be distributed at one of the Elisha Project warehouses in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
Boxes of squash wait to be distributed at one of the Elisha Project warehouses in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Ortiz sees that the coronavirus does not care about your bachelor of science degree or your W2 form. “It doesn’t care who you are,” he said. “This pandemic is an equalizer.”

And Ortiz sees himself in some of the families that have suddenly fallen on hard times.

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Fourteen years ago, he was living in California, running a 400-person data research company that had clients like the McDonald’s corporation. He and his wife decided to move to the East Coast to try to expand the operation, but then the company fell apart.

“What happened was I came East and left the company in the West, and through mismanagement, we lost everything,” he said. “I thought we were big enough to handle the split to grow on the eastern seaboard, but it went belly up. I was the last one to know the ship was sinking.”

Ortiz said he and his wife soon found themselves homeless and without a source of income. When they went to food banks and churches, they were asked for information about their income over the previous five years and were told they did not qualify for help.

“So we could never get help,” Ortiz said. “We said to ourselves: When we get back on our feet, we are going to start an organization that feeds people regardless of where they are. We are not asking how they got there – we are asking what they need to get to the next level.”

In June 2011, they formed the Elisha Project, named for a prophet and “wonder-worker” whose story is told in the Book of Kings in the Hebrew Bible.

“The reason his story stuck with me is he was big on not asking God for things but doing what you can with what you have and letting God do the miracles,” said Ortiz, who is a nondenominational Christian minister.

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So the Ortizes did what they could with that $48.50 – filling brown bags with deli meat sandwiches, potato chips, and an apple – and for 565 consecutive Saturdays, they distributed lunches outside Crossroads.

Along the way, Ortiz began recruiting volunteers on the Elisha Project Facebook page, and to date some 100,000 people have lent a hand.

The key, he said, is that when people ask him where they can send a check, he tells them to keep their check and to bring their bodies down to a street corner to help people – and then, if they’d like, to write an even bigger check.

The idea, he said, is to get people to put their time, talent, and treasurer where their heart directs them. He said he has been amazed at the size of people’s hearts.

“People want to help,” Ortiz said. “They want to be part of it.”

He said he urges executives to go beyond making a corporate donation – to get involved personally. Executives from CVS Health, Citizens Bank, and the Collette travel agency have donated both time and money, he said, and the owner of Dunkin’ Donuts franchises, Bruce Thomas, bought 1,000 turkeys, at a cost of $17,850, to feed families at Thanksgiving.

Adults began bringing their children with them to volunteer for the Elisha Project, and now many of the volunteers are young people, in high school and college, Ortiz said. This past weekend, the girls’ high school basketball team from Franklin, Mass., unloaded 12 pallets of food for families in the Hyde Park section of Boston, he said.

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Ortiz said the Elisha Project is modeled after City Harvest, a food rescue and delivery operation in New York City. He explained that he collects food from colleges and universities, supermarkets, and restaurants that might otherwise go to waste.

And he said the Elisha Project will provide that food to anyone in need – “anyone who has the audacity to ask for help.”

As the pandemic continues, the number of people who need help is soaring.

On Tuesday, Ortiz stood amid large cardboard boxes filled with fresh squash, yellow crates filled with canned corn, and big boxes of bananas inside one of the Elisha Project’s two Pawtucket warehouses. A handful of volunteers filled boxes of food and other supplies for delivery to homes throughout the state.

Milagro “Millie” Rodriguez, whose first name means “miracle,” said she walks 20 minutes from her home in Central Falls to help at the distribution center. At about 5 feet tall, she is a pint-sized powerhouse, lifting boxes and helping move supplies out the door for those in need.

Milagro "Millie" Rodriquez,  64, carries a box as she helps pack food and supplies for COVID-19 patients at the Elisha Project's Pawtucket warehouse.
Milagro "Millie" Rodriquez, 64, carries a box as she helps pack food and supplies for COVID-19 patients at the Elisha Project's Pawtucket warehouse.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

While she is not paid, Rodriguez brings home meat, vegetables, and other food for her family, which includes two daughters and three grandchildren.

“It feels good doing something for other people – working and helping others,” she said.

When the day’s work is done, she walks home to Central Falls, the impoverished 1.29-square-mile city that has been the hottest of the state’s COVID-19 hot spots.

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Looking ahead, Ortiz said it’s obvious that Congress needs to enact another coronavirus relief package. But he said we don’t need to wait for Washington, D.C., to act – we can all do some simple things to make a difference here in Rhode Island.

After a year of political turmoil, nationwide protests, and widespread disease, he said the holiday season gives us a chance to catch our breath, realize we’re all in this together, and shift our focus to neighbors who might be lonely, hungry, or sick.

“Maybe this year we all don’t need 1,000 gifts,” Ortiz said. “Let’s make sure that people to the left and the right of us can eat and keep the lights on.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.