When the coronavirus crisis in New York forced GMHC to shutter its weekday meals program as well as its food pantry, the agency shifted to a labor-intensive approach it has dubbed “GMHC on the Go,” which involves bagging up hundreds of packages that include 14 meals to be delivered directly to clients’ homes.
This week, that effort, which relies on agency staff and volunteers, got a boost from dozens of members of the Gay Officers Action League (GOAL) and FireFLAG/ EMS, which represents LGBTQ firefighters and emergency medical technicians — as well as staff from Boxers NYC.
On May 6, the crew — with face masks and socially distanced — bagged the meals packages, and they are delivering them across the city on May 7 and 8.
“We’re always involved in community events whenever we’re asked,” Detective Investigator Brian Downey, the GOAL president explained, “whether to work the door for a ball or provide food for the KiKi Coalition Youth Pride Fest.”
Within GOAL, Downey explained, Detective Specialist Mike Smertiuk, the group’s treasurer, has a particular passion for community service involving youth and AIDS. Just prior to the state going on lockdown, the group had committed to delivering toiletries on a monthly basis to the Ali Forney Center, which provides housing and social services to homeless LGBTQ youth. With shortages of such goods hitting area stores, follow-up on that service has been difficult for GOAL.
When Smertiuk learned about the GMHC on the Go effort, “he jumped all over it,” according to Downey.
Almost two dozen GOAL members were joined by their FireFLAG/ EMS peers and several guys from Boxers.
GOAL has been working with GMHC for several years, Downey said, explaining, “It’s a cause we believe in.”
Doing this service this week, though, has the added benefit of bringing together LGBTQ law enforcement and public safety officers unable to find other ways of getting together during the COVID-19 crisis.
“We’re going to use these opportunities to be around one another,” Downey said. “We need that release. There is that camaraderie. So many people said, ‘I’m so glad to see you.’”
For some GOAL members, he added, the group is something of a lifesaver.
“With so many of our members in family situations that aren’t good, where they’re harassed and abused, at least this type of situation would give the release they need,” Downey said.
GOAL and FireFLAG/ EMS members, of course, are essential workers and they are on the frontlines of all sorts of unprecedented challenges in the city right now.
For Downey, COVID-19 has a more personal resonance. Both he and his partner had symptoms of coronavirus infection, and Downey tested positive.
“It wasn’t sickest I’ve ever been,” he said, “but it was a very scary experience.”
Downey experienced tightness in his chest, two migraines a day, and he couldn’t taste or smell for about six weeks. He considers himself “lucky,” however, since he did not require hospitalization, a fact he appreciates especially because he did have to drop into a hospital for a chest x-ray.
“Being in that ER, it was something I’ve never seen before,” Downey said. “Watching all the people coming in. Some of them couldn’t get a sentence out. It was terrifying.”
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