Brian and Jenn Polk moved to the Fort Wayne area in the early 2010s, and over the years, they’ve found their community in the city’s local restaurant scene.
On Thursday nights, for example, they’re regulars at Junk Ditch Brewing Company, and as regulars at many local favorites, the city’s servers and restaurateurs have become their close friends.
“We’ve been fortunate to get to know owners of a lot of local establishments,” Brian says. “Since neither of us have family in Fort Wayne, they’re like an extension of our family.”
Brian and Jenn PolkSo when the COVID-19 crisis began shutting down restaurants and laying off servers across the city, the Polks stepped in to offer their extended family some much-needed help.
Putting Brian’s software development skills to use, they created a website called Fund the Fort (fundthefort.org) to curate a list of GoFundMe campaigns and the like for the city’s restaurants and their staff.
“We were just thinking: How can we help, and what can we do to assist?” Brian explains.
The website is not a money-making opportunity for the Polks. They aren’t getting any kickback or revenue off traffic to the site. They don’t even have an official affiliation with the City of Fort Wayne or any of the businesses represented, they say.
“We’re simply trying to help our friends in need,” their website explains.
Fund the Fort is a one-stop collection of Fort Wayne's COVID-19 funding and support efforts.
And while their effort may have started as a way to support the local food service industry, it’s grown into a one-stop-shop to fund Fort Wayne employees and COVID-19 relief efforts of all kinds, the Polks say.
So how does it work? The Polks monitor social media groups and submissions on their website for tips about COVID-19 relief funds or community support efforts. Then they simply post the opportunities to their site for other residents to access.
One Facebook group they’ve been utilizing a lot for tips is called 2GoFW, a grassroots movement that has grown to 17,000-plus members in only six days, with users frequently posting updates, needs, and support efforts as the COVID-19 crisis unfolds.
Brian says one of the most encouraging posts he’s shared lately on Fund the Fort was inspired by a post on 2GoFW’s Facebook page by the owner of Halal Eats, an authentic Middle Eastern restaurant in Fort Wayne, which wants to donate meals to local healthcare providers.
Halal Eats is looking for funders to pledge meals and offering to match donations 100 percent.
“That speaks volumes to this community and what people here are willing to do to help each other,” Brian says.
Jenn says another encouraging group that is pulling together to support Fort Wayne is city’s local yoga scene.
Many studios are offering classes online and ways for residents to donate to keep their instructors employed. In return, they’re providing free online classes to help patrons endure COVID-19.
“When yoga studios have to close, they’re still thinking about the community they’re serving and how they can continue to serve people even though they can’t see them in person,” Jenn says. “I think that’s huge.”
As for their friends in the local restaurant industry, the Polks say that nerves are certainly running high in the first week of the COVID-19 shutdown.
Many are wondering what they are going to do for a paycheck if restaurants don’t reopen to the public soon, and beyond getting paid, many just want to stay busy.
Even so, they seem to be keeping good spirits, Jenn says.
“In talking with Tolon and James Kahn about his restaurants and the Dash-In and Junk Ditch and El Azteca, everyone seems to be taking it in stride,” she says. “From what we can see, and from the friends we know who are working at these restaurants, they seem to be like, ‘Well, this is going to work out,’ and that speaks a lot to who they work for. They know that these local restaurant owners are going to take care of them.”
While Fund the Fort is primarily for local businesses, the Polks say they will post opportunities to support servers and staff at corporate chains in Fort Wayne, too.
Even so, they’re particularly interested in supporting Fort Wayne’s small businesses because while corporate chains might have the wherewithal to rebound after COVID-19, local establishments might not.
“I worry about all of those businesses that pour their heart and soul into this because they love Fort Wayne, and they want to provide good service and good food here,” Jenn says.
And while support and awareness about COVID-19 is strong right now, if the shutdown continues for several months, the public’s interest may wane.
“The community support has been really phenomenal, and that’s what we want to keep going,” Jenn says. “Week one, everyone has been really jazzed about supporting each other, but what if this goes on for four or five weeks?”
As a handful of local businesses closed their doors over the weekend due to overhead costs and other considerations, Fund the Fort wants to make sure that local businesses stay at the forefront of residents' minds.
And while there might not be any financial gains at stake for the Polks, there is certainly the opportunity to be on the right side of history.
“This is going to be a life event that will be remembered for decades,” Brian says. “Everything people are doing right now is going to be remembered. Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, it’s going to go down in history as a defining moment in our community for generations to come. I hope people think about that because everything has a lasting impact, and as much as it’s a tragedy, it’s also a tremendous opportunity to make a mark on our lives here in Fort Wayne and beyond.”
Submit a fund to support
Visit Fund the Fort's website to submit a fund for a restaurant or business suffering from COVID-19.