​​​​​​​Can Fort Wayne be the city that saves itself again? How neighbors are responding to COVID-19

During the Flood of 1982 in Fort Wayne, about 9,000 people had to evacuate their homes, and damages reached $56.1 million.

But amidst the chaos and devastation, more than 5,000 community volunteers came out and donated their time to filling sandbags to stop the water. Their efforts ultimately saved the city, earning Fort Wayne the nickname "The city that saved itself."

In 2020, a new type of disaster is afoot, creating crisis conditions, not only in our city, but also across our nation and around the world. As the threat of COVID-19 shutters local businesses, prevents public gatherings, and makes basic amenities like toilet paper scarce, it’s easy to feel like we are all left to fend for ourselves.

But while the demands of this challenge are different, the question we must ask ourselves ultimately remains the same: Can Fort Wayne—or any city, for that matter—find a way to save itself again?

In the first few days of COVID-19 confusion, here are a few ways innovative people and groups in northeast Indiana are supporting their community in need.

Serving vulnerable neighbors

Patricia Galvan is a single mom in Fort Wayne who works two jobs to support her four kids.

On Thursday last week, she pulled her kids out of Fort Wayne Community Schools so they didn’t get sick with COVID-19 before the schools officially closed on Friday.

“I’m legitimately fearful because I do have people I love who could possibly die,” Galvan says.

When the schools did close the next day, she saw a post on Facebook about praying for families trying to feed their kids in the absence of free and reduced school lunches. It gave her the idea to start a small support group on Facebook to help. She created the group to be a simple place to post needs, with the hope that someone out there might hear them and fulfill them.

“I originally just set it up with hopes that it would connect people in our community who need help with people who can give help,” Galvan says. “I thought, ‘We’re a community, so we can help each other.’”

She created the public Facebook group on Friday, calling it something like “Coronavirus support for the kids." When she checked Facebook again about three hours later, her group had 300 members—not only in Fort Wayne, but across the country.

Over the weekend, the group’s name evolved to “Coronavirus Assistance Group,” and its membership is now more 3,500 people across the U.S., with many posting needs and requesting to start groups of their own in their cities.

But while the movement’s success has been powerful so far, Galvan says it’s becoming more than she can handle on her own.

“It’s way bigger than what I expected it to be,” she says. “If somebody who shares my vision can help me, social media-wise, I would love to have some help with it.”

While Galvan is not sure what the group’s future will be at the moment, another organization in Fort Wayne with a similar mission has plans of its own.

Throughout the year, NeighborLink Fort Wayne helps the city’s most vulnerable residents accomplish tangible home repair projects by connecting them with able-bodied volunteers who want to donate their time or money. Projects typically range from painting, to mowing lawns, and building ramps for wheelchair users.

Since 2003, NeighborLink has facilitated more than 10,000 volunteer projects in Fort Wayne on its website, and while COVID-19 presents the group with a new (perhaps less physical) challenge, they are not backing down.

On Monday, NeighborLink put out a press release inviting vulnerable neighbors impacted by COVID-19 to share needs on their website, or by giving them a call at 260-209-0074. NeighborLink is also working on ways to facilitate volunteer opportunities for residents who want to get plugged in and help out.

Andrew Hoffman, Executive Director of NeighborLink, writes in an email: “It is NeighborLink's desire to first, be an outlet for neighbors in need so our community can collect the needs of vulnerable. Secondly, we want to be a place where volunteerism can happen in a direct, safe way that follows in line with current local recommendations. Third, we anticipate a time when a greater response via volunteerism is going to be needed and we’re attempting to be prepared when the time is right.”

While a full response plan is still being developed, volunteers are asked to register now at www.nlfw.org.

Individuals needing help are asked to identify any tangible needs they have related to the impact of COVID-19.

Examples include:

  • Grocery shopping and/or delivery
  • Meal preparation & delivery
  • Social connection via phone calls from other neighbors
  • Any project you could use some help with that limits the physical connection between you and the volunteer.

Supporting small business owners

As small businesses and restaurants close their doors to customers, how will they be able to support their staff members and their very livelihoods?

While developments are in the works at the city and state levels, one Fort Wayne-based entrepreneur group is offering emotional support and idea-sharing opportunities to local business owners in the meantime.

Founders Spark, which usually hosts events for entrepreneurs on Wednesday nights, is moving its March 18 meeting online. The group will be hosting a Facebook Livestream called “Pivot & Overcome” to “help bring clarity and strategy to area business owners on how they can adapt and overcome the COVID-19 pandemic,” a press release says.

The talk will feature local and regional business owners sharing the impact COVID-19 has had on them, and what Fort Wayne can do in response. It will also talk about some of the best practices business owners are implementing now, including Q&A sessions and interactive discussions. (Viewers are encouraged to ask questions ahead of time using this link: bit.ly/fs-pivotquestions.)

In case you miss the discussion, Founders Spark will also be launching a new Facebook Group for entrepreneurs to stay connected and share best practices to offset the number of events that have been canceled due to COVID-19, a press release says.

Pivot & Overcome Livestream

7 p.m. March 18

Tune in: www.facebook.com/foundersspark, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UChbssi3wYr43Lb6eElOAcZw

Who’s Invited:

  • Small business owners/entrepreneurs
  • Consumers looking to support local business

Feeding hungry children

Since schools in Allen County have closed this week, administrators and local leaders have been working tirelessly to create a makeshift solution for families who rely on school breakfasts and lunches to feed their children.

Earlier this week, leaders rolled out a multi-prong plan that offers free meals to area students at local schools, parks, and restaurants, no questions asked.

“A lot of folks, including Superintendents Chris Himsel at Northwest Allen, Phil Downs at Southwest Allen, and many others are doing a great job of lobbying legislators in Washington to get waivers so kids are fed,” says Meg Distler of the St. Joe Community Health Foundation. “It’s a wonderful story of diverse team players coming together.”

Here are the meal pickup locations and rules.

Fort Wayne Community Schools

FWCS will provide free breakfast & lunch for children at all elementary schools. Meals are available by walk-up/drive-up for all kids, regardless of the school they attend, ages birth through high school from 10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. daily. Children must be present.

East Allen County Schools

EACS will continue to provide breakfast and lunch to all EACS students and anyone in the EACS community who is 18 years of age and under during the closure period. Families can pick up two packs per child. One will have 5 days worth of breakfasts and the other, 5 days worth of lunches.

Southwest Allen County Schools

SACS will offer meal pick-up for families on eLearning days, Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and 4 p.m. -6 p.m. at Homestead High School Door 10A. There will also be drive-up service where Food Service Staff will be ready to deliver a meal for each SACS student, so families will not have to leave their cars. Drivers will be asked to provide the student’s name and ID number, along with which school they attend.

Northwest Allen County Schools

NACS has not yet announced a plan.

Allen County Parks

Select community centers (listed below) offer meal pickups between 4-5 p.m. You can drive up or walk up, but there will be no seating and no building admission.


Lucille’s BBQ (9011 Lima Rd.) All children receive a free sack lunch, no questions asked, Monday-Friday from 11 a.m.-1 p.m.

Willie’s Family Restaurant (6342 Saint Joe Center Rd.) Please send a personal message on Facebook or drop by and ask for Kim Campbell, and all requests will be kept confidential.

Caliente Cuban (120 W. Wayne St.) Free bagged lunches for children with either a half grilled cheese sandwich or half ham and cheese sandwich with chips.

Elmo’s Pizza & Subs (all locations) and Subway (only at 7405 Maplecrest Rd.) Free bagged lunches for children, no questions asked. These will be available at any time Monday-Friday as long as schools remain closed.

The Bluebird Restaurant (4410 Bluffton Rd.) Free sack lunches for children with the option of curbside pick-up for those who call in.

Mancino’s (1025 W. Coliseum Blvd.) Free kids meals Monday-Friday between 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Dairy Queen (3132 St. Joe Center) Free kids meals until schools are back in session during regular business hours 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

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Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.