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Anonymous group offers gratitude through food to Christmas Eve hospital staff

The meal is a token of appreciation offered by a group of 25 anonymous community members calling themselves Project Gratitude, which collected $4,300 in monetary and material donations to make the effort possible.

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Volunteer Marcia Ferris, left, dishes portions of salad while Sage on Laurel owner Sarah Hayden Shaw carries more ham and volunteer Stephanie Hamilton helps with the broccoli slaw Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021, in Brainerd. Volunteers and restaurant staff prepared 160 meals for anyone working on Christmas Eve at Essentia Health-St. Joseph's Medical Center. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
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A prepackaged glazed ham feast prepared by a downtown Brainerd restaurant will be gifted to each health care worker staffing an overburdened Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Brainerd on Christmas Eve.

The meal is a token of appreciation offered by a group of 25 anonymous community members calling themselves Project Gratitude, which collected $4,300 in monetary and material donations to make the effort possible. Gratitude for those who care for the sick and injured is always appropriate, those who contributed said, but society careening into a second holiday season with the coronavirus pandemic maintaining its grip makes that expression all the more important.

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“It was initiated by a group of people in the community that see what the health care workers are going through and (are) wanting to make sure that they’re seen and heard, that they know that we know what they’re going through in the sacrifice that they’re making and are grateful for what they’re doing,” said Sarah Hayden Shaw, owner of Sage on Laurel, which catered the Christmas spread. “ … Just the no end in sight stress that our hospital workers are under, you know, it’s just — sending food is not going to fix the problem. But it is a small way to say thank you.”

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Knotty Pine Bakery owner Marie Kirsch shows on Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021, some of the 440 Christmas cookies and cards headed to all employees of Essentia Health-St. Joseph's Medical Center in Brainerd. The cookies are part of a holiday care package donated by an anonymous group of community members calling themselves Project Gratitude. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Also joining in the effort were Knotty Pine Bakery owner Marie Kirsch, who baked and iced nearly 450 sugar cookies for every St. Joseph’s employee, and Lakes Printing, which donated its services to print a holiday card to accompany each treat.

“I hope it lifts their spirits,” Kirsch said Wednesday, Dec. 22. “I mean, this has been a long haul. I know for me as a business owner, there was a lot happening right around when the pandemic first started, but I know it’s kind of tapered off since then. And so I just hope they realize that … the community, we’re still feeling for all those frontline workers that are out there doing what we need to do to keep our community healthy and safe.”

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"It’s nice to know that the community is thinking of us, because sometimes we feel like we’re in this little bubble of Essentia Health, in our world."

— Deb Anderson, Essentia Health volunteer services


Beyond the glazed ham, the meals — packaged cold to allow workers to heat and eat when it works for their schedules — feature asparagus, a broccoli slaw, garlic mashed potatoes, pistachio fluff pudding and a miniature orange-cranberry upside-down cake.

“It’ll be a full little feast, as much as we can do,” Shaw said. “ … We’re trying to make it as festive and celebratory as we can. … We’re trying to send a little Christmas love in the package.”

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Volunteers Jessica Bleichner, left, Ambrosia Bleichner and Nikki O'Day along with Sage on Laurel owner Sarah Hayden Shaw work to assemble 160 individually packaged Christmas Eve meals Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021, for Essentia Health-St. Joseph's Medical Center employees. The meals will cover all employees scheduled to work the evening and overnight shifts. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Knotty Pine’s cookies include a variety of holiday-themed shapes topped with colorful royal icing, which hardens into a smooth candy coating, along with heart shapes topped with a representation of an EKG heartbeat reading. Each cookie includes a holiday card from Project Gratitude, which states: “Thank you for all you have sacrificed and continue to sacrifice for the community you serve; the stress, the tragedy, the frustration, all with no end in sight. We see you, think of you, and are grateful beyond words.

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“With warm wishes, Project Gratitude — a loosely organized group of local citizens who hold you in our hearts and minds and are working to be safe, follow vaccination and safety guidelines, and encourage our fellow community members to do the same.”


"Just the no end in sight stress that our hospital workers are under, you know, it’s just — sending food is not going to fix the problem. But it is a small way to say thank you."

— Sarah Hayden Shaw, owner of Sage on Laurel


Deb Anderson of Essentia Health Volunteer Services coordinated with the group to ensure it met donation requirements and dovetailed with hospital administration’s own plans to show their appreciation. Anderson said some kind of Christmas meal is typically offered to employees scheduled for the evening and night shifts, and this year, Project Gratitude’s generosity offset the hospital’s costs in supplying dinner.

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Sage on Laurel owner Sarah Hayden Shaw, left, organizes dishes Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021, that will become part of a Christmas Eve meal for 160 Essentia Health-St. Joseph's Medical Center employees scheduled to work that night. Also helping out in the kitchen are head chef Scott Badeaux and business manager Angie Erickson.

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“It’s knowing that other people can understand that they are going through a tough time,” Anderson said during a Zoom interview. “It’s not just Christmas, it’s an especially hard time right now, dealing with all the (staffing) shortages and the extra patients because we’re at a limit of our patients here — more than we’ve had since even the beginning of the pandemic. So it’s really coming at a really good time.”

Anderson emphasized while Essentia Health certainly appreciates the sentiment behind donations to hospital staff, she said gifts must be large enough to cover the entirety of the workforce, about 450 people, to ensure all those involved in keeping the facility running are recognized.


"I just hope they realize that … the community, we’re still feeling for all those frontline workers that are out there doing what we need to do to keep our community healthy and safe."

— Marie Kirsch, owner of Knotty Pine Bakery


Otherwise, people are encouraged to direct their goodwill and monetary donations to Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Foundation , which raises money for local facilities and contributes to community health programs. Gifts can be directed toward a number of specific programs or be offered unrestricted. Another option is to contribute to the St. Joseph’s Auxiliary, which is a group directly contributing to the comfort and care of hospital patients through volunteer efforts.

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“It’s nice to know that the community is thinking of us, because sometimes we feel like we’re in this little bubble of Essentia Health, in our world,” Anderson said. “And nobody out there knows what we’re doing, what we’re going through. So when the community does come through with things like this, it does move my heart to know that somebody is thinking of us here in the hospital.”

Other ways to help hospital workers? Get vaccinated, wear masks, social distance and practice good hand hygiene — particularly with a more contagious variant becoming dominant in the United States and the impacts of that spread not yet fully understood. But Anderson shared another message, too: a plea for kindness.

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“Just be kind to us. There’s so many times people come in and they voice their opinions and refuse to wear a mask and get angry,” Anderson said. “ … I oversee guest services, and all the people coming in — I see so many rude people. … I guess it’s just — be kind to all of us, because after going through all this, having people’s kindness really helps out, too.”

CHELSEY PERKINS, community editor, may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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