LOWELL — It all started with cupcakes.
After working a full shift in Lowell General Hospital’s ER, registered nurse Jennifer Espinola found joy and much needed relief in cupcakes donated to the hospital by Dracut bakery Amanda Panda Party.
The bakery is one of several small businesses to donate to the hospital.
“As a nurse myself after a long day and wearing a mask for eight hours, you can’t breathe, you get headaches, to sit down and eat a cupcake or a sandwich from Pressed Cafe, or whoever is donating, it’s been great,” said Espinola, a Tyngsboro resident.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Amanda Panda Party has begun donating a dozen cupcakes to the hospital for every dozen cupcakes purchased. The effort gave Espinola an idea — to pay it forward to others working the pandemic front lines by spreading joy through food.
Initially intending to spend one day delivering food, Espinola created a Facebook page called “Spreading Joy Thru Food During COVID-19” where she shared her idea and asked for donations to help buy food to donate.
She raised $35,000.
It was far more than Espinola expected
“I literally thought it was going to be one day of (delivering) cupcakes,” Espinola said.
For every $100 she received, Espinola added a day for deliveries. She also decided to buy food to donate from a different local business each week.
“I figured it would help a small business right now because $700 for a small business is big,” Espinola said, referencing the amount she aims to spend each week.
Espinola started by delivering cupcakes from Amanda Panda Party to Lowell firefighters.
Espinola, who has worked as an ER nurse for 11 years, comes from a family of firefighters. Her father, brother, cousin and brother-in-law are firefighters in Lowell, and her husband, who is currently deployed in Afghanistan, is a Lawrence firefighter.
Over the past few weeks, Espinola has donated to 46 places.
She has brought food to police and fire in Lowell, Dracut, Tyngsboro, Billerica, Westford and Chelmsford, as well as the Pelham, N.H. Fire Department; making a point to return multiple times to get all the shifts. Espinola’s efforts did not stop there, she also brought donated food to postal workers in Lowell, Dracut and Tyngsboro, all four Lowell Urgent Care locations, the Merrimack Food Bank, PrideStar EMS, Pulse EMS and Trinity EMS.
With grocery store workers in mind, Espinola also made deliveries to four Market Basket locations, two Hannaford locations, two CVSs and one Walgreens.
“It seems like so little to be bringing a box of cupcakes or a bunch of empanadas but it’s a nice refreshing moment,” Espinola said.
Local businesses have also jumped on board. When Espinola went to Eggroll Cafe to purchase food platters, the business donated a fifth platter allowing Espinola to deliver five food platters every day for a week.
A friend of Espinola’s who owns a print shop agreed to print flyers and vouchers for a free medium coffee and doughnut from any Top Donut location. According to Espinola, Top Donut did not have gift cards for Espinola to purchase but was eager to participate. So Espinola spent $700 to pay for 180 doughnuts and coffees which she distributed to grocery store and pharmacy workers in the form of the pre-paid vouchers.
“I’m just trying to give employees something nice,” Espinola said.
Other local businesses that Espinola has gone to include Lowell Portuguese Bakery, Olympos Bakery in Lowell, Bani Restaurant in Lowell and Cancun Mexican Restaurant in Dracut.
Espinola’s ability to find the time to organize the donations, work at the hospital and care for her two sons are a testament to who she is, according to Espinola’s aunt, Marybeth Bonheur.
“She just amazes me with being a nurse and Army wife, mother and (she) just continues,” Bonheur said. “To even want to go from a floor to the emergency room that’s typical of her, that’s where she wants to be.”
Though she has worked in Lowell General’s ER, Espinola has been a nurse since the age of 20. She discovered her passion for working in the ER several years ago when Espinola spent a day doing a clinical rotation in an emergency room in New Hampshire.
“I said this is where I belong, this is my home,” Espinola said.
Since starting Spreading Joy Thru Food, Espinola has not had to work directly with many patients battling COVID-19, which has allowed her to feel safe making the deliveries.
However, she expects that to change in the coming weeks.
Last week while on vacation, Espinola made a point to spend the rest of the donated money buying and delivering food.
“I figured I’d have a big huge week and next week I’ll roll my serves up and probably end up being exposed at some point,” Espinola said.
Though likely unable to make deliveries herself, Espinola expects to continue Spreading Joy Thru Food with the help of others who have volunteered to pick up and deliver the food for her.
“It’s been so rewarding and it’s been so nice and I would love to continue this on,” Espinola said. “It is a great thing and I do love doing it.”
Espinola said she already has plenty of volunteer drivers but is accepting donations via Venmo. Small businesses interested in participating can also reach out to Espinola.
Contact information and further details of Espinola’s efforts can be found on her “Spreading Joy Thru Food During COVID-19” Facebook page.