Lunch with Mimi: Inspired by the community that helped her through a difficult time, Michelle DiMidio started the Alliance for G.O.O.D. to assist residents with a variety of needs
A personal trainer, wife, and mother, Michelle DiMidio in April started Alliance for G.O.O.D. (Giving Others Our Donation), a grassroots effort to help local families struggling with any sort of need related to the pandemic. DiMidio couldn’t just sit at home and do nothing; in fact, she felt compelled to reach out through her contacts as a longtime volunteer for the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree Program to get feedback on how she could fulfil any particular needs in the community.
Through her inquiry, she was connected to Housing Transitions and Centre Safe to put together “goody boxes” filled with donated items from nonperishable snacks and cloth face masks to toilet paper and grocery store gift cards. Now, through the Alliance for G.O.O.D. website and other sources, she asks people to reach out if they know someone in the community who may have a need.
Since May, Alliance for G.O.O.D. has given out more than $8,000 in gift cards alone to help local families struggling during the pandemic. Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith interviewed DiMidio via Zoom to discuss what inspired her to start Alliance for G.O.O.D. and how others in the community can help support each other and make a difference.
Mimi: Welcome, Michelle. You started a list of people who had the same motivation as you had not just to sit there and say, “I want to do something.” You were motivated to find a way that you could orchestrate something helpful to other people. Am I getting the story right?
Michelle: Exactly right. Yes. It started off as the Community Support Program. I reached out to Anne Ard at Centre Safe and my friend Morgan Wasikonis at Housing Transitions. At the time (this spring), their clients were in hotels, isolated, and didn't have much, so we got together as a team to create what we call goody boxes and provided them to the Housing Transitions clients. These boxes included nonperishable goods, masks, and toilet paper, which was hard to find back in April. We boxed them all up and gave those out. And that's how it kind of started.
Everything went really well. We got more than we needed. I just had all these different slots to fill, and everybody could sign up. For the first project, it was only 15 boxes because, at that time, they had 15 clients in hotels. Each box got a $25 gift card, games, hand-wash, toilet paper. And then we found out about a single mom who lost her job and had four little kids. And we did the same kinds of things with gift cards and everything for that family. She got over $500 in gift cards, which was great.
Mimi: These were contributed by a total of how many people?
Michelle: I have 100 people on my email list. That's my original list. And then, I put a group on Facebook, and the Facebook group has about 215 members.
Mimi: That's pretty amazing, really. So, now you have two different lists, one on Facebook and one on email?
Michelle: Actually, there are three sources. I'm not a huge Facebook fan, to be honest; I felt that the messaging was kind of confusing. So, I created a website (dimidio.wixsite.com/website). I started keeping information on there, and then people subscribed to the website. I do have a list on the website of about 60 people who are subscribers.
Mimi: How do you get your targets for help?
Michelle: I originally started by talking to Housing Transitions, and then Centre Safe. But then I also opened up the opportunity for friends or people who might know of somebody that's in need to contact me privately, confidentially, and then we would care for them. I never reached out directly to any individual on my own. Anything that's been done has been referred to me. Like the single mom was referred to me by several different people. We've actually helped out now five single moms.
Mimi: And you give them what?
Michelle: One single mom was pregnant; she has two little boys and was not able to work. She was considering giving the baby up for adoption because she couldn’t afford to keep it. I asked her what she needed. And she asked for things for her boys and herself, but nothing for the baby. So, for her, that's what we did. And one thing was the little boys have bicycles, but she didn't have a bicycle. We were able to get her a bicycle. I think she got over $600 in gift cards. She asked for gift cards for the pharmacy, gas, and groceries. And she asked for clothing for her little kids.
So, the question was, “What do we give each person?” Each person, we ask what they need, and then we give them whatever they need for the most part, if we can.
Mimi: How often do you do this?
Michelle: I do it whenever I find out about something. For example, Leslie Finton reached out to me through Tides (which supports families grieving the death of a loved one). She said they were having an uptick in clients and could really use some help. The thing that they were requesting was to expand their resource library. She gave us a list of books that they needed, and we got 96 books for their resource library.
Mimi: Where did you get them?
Michelle: I use Sign-up Genius. I created a link and then people can click on it, order it through Amazon or Barnes & Noble. And then they have it shipped. One thing I found early on is that people aren't leaving their houses. So, I would provide my address so they could just have everything mailed here, and then I collect it all and make sure that it gets to the person who needs it.
Mimi: You're motivated to do this regularly and at the same time be a mother, and a personal trainer. What else do you do?
Michelle: I used to like to travel, but that's not happening right now. So, this is taking up a lot of my time. My kids are older. I have one that's a junior at Penn State. My daughter lives in Vermont, so I don't get to see her very often because Vermont has been really strict about visitors and quarantining for two weeks. My oldest son is applying to get his PhD at Penn State.
Mimi: Tell me about the motivation to do this, to make the time to do it, and make a difference. What does it do for you?
Michelle: There was a time when I was a single mom, and I had a tough time making ends meet. I tried to keep the mortgage paid and everything, and this community really came out for me, which makes me want to cry. They slipped me a gift card or Charlene Friedman showed up with some boots one day because she knew that I needed a pair of boots. I had a dentist forgive my son's orthodontic bills.
So, I know what it’s like not to have and try to get by, and I know what that's like not to want to ask for help, but need help. And because I received so much love and help from this community, it feels really good to try to give back and to help people who may be in the same shoes that I was in.
Mimi: So, from your own horror, you have learned that there's always something good at the other end of the horror. Welcome to the club.
Michelle: You too?
Mimi: The horror of my life has helped me become who I am. And the horror of your life was subtly the motivation for you to reach out and do things without any other people knowing it. If one of your friends had not told me your story, I would have never called you because I wouldn't have known of your existence. From this column, you may be getting a lot more calls; I hope you get a ton of them. How frequently do you do what you do?
Michelle: I started this in May, and it's been like every other week. I've had a lot more requests in the last two weeks, and some unusual ones, actually. I had a request from Interfaith Human Services. They use postage stamps because they pay their clients’ bills. I just sent out a sign-up yesterday to help buy stamps and gas gift cards, because they pick up furniture and appliances and take them to clients.
We did one where a woman was homeless who they were able to find housing for, but she had nothing. So, within 24 hours, we found a comforter, plates, cups, and washcloths. Anything you can think of that you would need when you moved into an apartment, we got it for her and got it over to Housing Transitions, and they made sure she was taken care of.
Mimi: Who helps you?
Michelle: I collect it all and then just get it to them. People put stuff on my front porch. I throw it in my garage and put it together. My team, they're the ones that do the work, though.
You know, it's funny: I knew this interview was coming up, and I hadn't been keeping track of anything. So, I went back and tried to add up at least just what I know of in the gift-card range. And since May, we've gotten over $8,000 in gift cards.
Mimi: Wow. Do you care to name some of the more generous places?
Michelle: The biggest thing that we did was for Centre Safe. They have over 100 people in the shelter right now. And so, Anne asked if we could do 100 different goody bags – which ties into the Alliance for G.O.O.D. And she asked for gift cards. We did one $50 gift card for each bag. So that was $5,000 right there. That was the biggest one we did. And those gift cards were for Walmart or Sheetz, so that they could buy gas and groceries and things like that.
Mimi: The team that you've recruited, your people on your list, are the ones that buy the gift cards?
Mimi: You're amazing.
Michelle: It's kind of easy; they just buy them online and then they can either have it emailed to me or mailed to me in my mailbox. They are very generous. Big Spring Spirits gave me cases of hand sanitizer, so we included those in all those hundred bags for Centre Safe clients and to everybody else who’s come along, we made sure they got hand sanitizer.
Mimi: Where do you go from here? This is going to grow; you're going to get more names. How are you going to handle it?
Michelle: I agree with you. I think we're just at the beginning. I think it's going to only get worse here in the next few months. I think I operate best when all the balls are in the air. I kind of thrive on that. We'll see what happens and try to make it work.
Mimi: You're doing all the heavy lifting.
Michelle: I like doing that. It makes me feel better. And the other thing, Mimi, is that I find that, yes, the part of helping people is great. But I feel like I'm also giving our community members an opportunity to help. I've gotten so many messages with people thanking me for the opportunity to help. I have an orchid in my kitchen; that's from one of the people who donated to the program, just to thank me for the opportunity to help. People are amazing.
Mimi: It's a unique way to help good people who are really in trouble. How are you going to grow it? You can't let it stop.
Michelle: We'll just keep it coming. There’s a family in Bellefonte, the husband had a stroke, and multiple things are going on. And they asked for somebody to do some weeding in their yard. And they also requested some meals, so we did a sign-up for meals for them as well. We just kind of take it one day at a time, and when emergencies come up, we try to take care of that as fast as possible.
I do try to plan things out as much as I can, but at the moment, as things come up, we'll just take care of it.
Mimi: Do you have any close helpers? Do you have really good friends that you confide in and help you get over the humps?
Michelle: Absolutely. I'm very blessed in that way.
Mimi: Because it's heavy lifting for one person, all that you're trying to do. But you could be your own nonprofit.
Michelle: To be honest, I just feel way better now than I did back in March when I wasn't doing anything.
Mimi: Did your husband encourage you to do this once you got the idea?
Michelle: Yeah. As a people person, this pandemic has been hard because I like to touch people and be with people. He saw me kind of struggling before I came up with this idea, and now that I'm on this and now that I'm back to work, too, I'm much happier to be around. So yeah, he definitely encourages it. He's very supportive.
Mimi: You have a big heart. To what do you attribute that?
Michelle: As a personal trainer I am helping people achieve their goals and, most times, they just need somebody to care about them and motivate them to do the work, and I enjoy that. And that's kind of the same thing with this program.
Mimi: You’re pretty independent by nature. How'd you get that way?
Michelle: I've always been that way. I'm the first person in my family to ever go to college. I was just determined to do it. I came to Penn State as a freshman and I got a degree in kinesiology. I've been doing personal training my whole life.
Mimi: My hat's off to you. I think our readers will enjoy knowing what you're doing, and maybe you can motivate a lot of other people to find the way they can help the less fortunate. Do you have any parting words for our readers? What do you suggest they do?
Michelle: If there's anybody that you feel needs anything, whether it's their lawn being mowed or groceries picked up – we've actually provided babysitting services for some single moms, too – please reach out and let me know, and we will see what we can do to help.
Mimi: OK, Michelle, you're ringing lots of bells. From my house to yours, thanks for being a wonderful woman.
Michelle: Thank you.
For more information about Alliance for G.O.O.D. projects, or to make donations, subscribe to its website (dimidio.wixsite.com/website), join the Alliance for G.O.O.D. Facebook group (facebook.com/groups/234671281111593), or contact Michelle DiMidio at [email protected]