When a senior living community struggled to find scarce supplies to care for its residents, staff at Virginia Tech stepped in to help.

“Our residents, as a population, are at the highest risk from COVID-19,” said Mike Williams. “When we started seeing shortages across the entire health industry, we knew we’d have to find creative solutions to protect our caregivers and residents.”

Williams is chief executive officer of English Meadows Senior Living, which operates eight campuses in Virginia, including two in Montgomery County. He and his wife, Patti, had spent three weeks in March in self-imposed quarantine after visiting their daughter Abby, a junior communications major, at Virginia Tech’s campus in Lugano, Switzerland.

At the recommendation of state and federal health agencies, the senior living communities shifted in March to in-room meal service, telemedicine whenever possible, and banned nonessential visitors. But finding the necessary supplies to serve the 500 residents proved challenging.

English Meadows ordered 1,500 reusable meal containers but their supplier could only ship 600 because of the huge demand. Single-use containers were also becoming increasingly hard to find as restaurants, closed by stay-at-home orders around the country, converted to delivery-only service. 

Williams, whose two other daughters are Virginia Tech alumni, remembered seeing the green plastic to-go containers from campus dining centers. He reached out to John Dooley, a neighbor and chief executive officer of the Virginia Tech Foundation, who put Williams in contact with Dining Services. Within days, Williams was able to pick up 1,000 containers at Southgate Center - Dining Services’ commissary kitchen, bakery, and warehouse facility – and distribute them to senior living campuses around the state.

“Dining Services was contacted about an urgent need at a senior living community to assist them in providing services to their residents,” said Ted Faulkner, director of Dining Services. “We quickly found the means to provide 1,000 of our reusable to-go containers, which became available when campus moved to essential operations because of the COVID-19 crisis.

“In a time like this, we all need to come together for the greater good of our community and find unique and unprecedented ways to take care of each other,” Faulkner added. “This was another way that Dining Services could live out Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).”

Virginia Tech purchased the reusable to-go meal containers through the Green RFP program, which has funded about $1 million of student-requested environmental projects since 2010. Each container can be cleaned and reused hundreds of times, replacing about 250 single-use containers during an academic year. The reusable meal containers are part of Dining Services’ broader sustainability mission, which includes composting about 600 tons of food waste and recycling 750 tons of food and drink packaging each year.

The containers were loaned to English Meadows until July at no charge and will be returned for the fall semester, according to the program’s manager at Dining Services.

The senior living community was also looking to boost its supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) for its caregivers. The senior centers had good supplies of masks and gloves, left over from a mild flu season, but wanted to bolster its stock of single-use gowns for staff making in-room visits.

After brainstorming with his team, Williams said they were able to purchase more than 1,000 rain ponchos from Virginia Tech’s bookstore. The VT-branded rain gear, along with dozens of safety goggles used in research labs, were sold to them at cost and could be used as emergency PPE should caregivers need them, said Williams.

“The only issue was at our Abingdon and Crozet campuses. Our staff joked that they would have liked University of Tennessee and UVA ponchos,” said Williams. “I told them, 'you’re Tech fans now.'”

Throughout the challenges posed by COVID-19, Williams said he has been struck by the commitment of university staff to the community. Earlier this month, Frank Beamer, another neighbor and former head coach for Virginia Tech football, called to check on Williams and his family.

“Coach Beamer is at home right now like most of us and is using that time to reach out to as many neighbors and Hokies as he can,” said Williams. “It was incredible to get a call like that. The university’s response has been unbelievable.”

Written by Will Rizzo