Ashley Brown delivers meals, flowers and a balloon Sunday celebrating Mother’s Day at a neighbor’s home in Winthrop. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

Ashley Brown was already busy when coronavirus was declared a global pandemic in mid-March.

With a 5-year-old son and an 18-month-old daughter and a business she runs from the Winthrop home she shares with her husband, Nathan, her days were already full when something occurred to her that would upend her life.

“I looked in my refrigerator and I saw the leftovers of all these amazing meals I had made for my family,” she said from her home last week.

Like thousands of people across Maine, Brown, 31, has seen the impact of the near-complete shutdown of the economy in Maine, the United States and elsewhere to slow the spread of coronavirus: Empty store shelves, people out of work, dwindling savings and isolation.

The shutdown of businesses across the state to slow the spread of coronavirus has revealed how isolated and ill-equipped many Maine residents are to cope with an emergency that has required shutting down businesses, schools and government activities. While many can work from home, many more are finding themselves unemployed and without a regular income.

Where they can, school districts have continued offering breakfast and lunch to students who qualify and in some cases to every student who wants it. Food banks across Maine are struggling to meet the growing demand for food as more people struggle to pay bills and feed their families.

Like hundreds of others across the state, Brown is a member of Maine Coronavirus Community Assistance, a Facebook page set up to share resources and information, ask for help, volunteer time or make donations.

Brown realized that with those leftovers, she could offer meals, providing nutrition and a connection to others who need both.

So she did.

Brown started posting that she was making meals and she was looking for people in the Winthrop area who needed them because they did not have food or could not get to the grocery store.

Shelley Gearheart is one of those people. Gearheart, 68, has lived in Winthrop most of her life and she feels like she knows or knows of most everybody in town. While she cooks for herself, she does not typically make much of a fuss. She might put something in the slow cooker and have that for several meals.

She did not know Brown, but she posted a comment to one of Brown’s posts,  and she found the connection Brown was also offering.

“It’s the anticipation, wondering what she’s making and what she’s going to drop off,” Gearheart said. “I look forward to it.”

Once or twice a week, Brown or husband will stop by and leave something on Gearheart’s steps, maybe with an extra treat thrown in.

Brown has also made meals for health care providers, sometimes adding a gift bag of elixirs and immunity boosters from her business, Mama’s Magic.

In the Portland area, Randy Olsen also saw Brown’s regular posts. He had already been answering requests on the Coronavirus Assistance page, buying pizzas for one request, paying for someone else’s gasoline.

While he is still working, his income as an independent contractor who delivers newspapers and magazines, including the Portland Press Herald and the Kennebec Journal, has been limited during the shutdown. He realized he could not continue doing that and was looking for some other way to contribute.

“Then I see this post from this woman, who is cooking and going shopping for these ingredients, and delivering them from an hour and a half away,” Olsen said Saturday on his way to deliver some food. “So I messaged her and said, ‘Can I meet you halfway and at least deliver to the greater Portland area?'”

They made arrangements to meet in the parking lot of a McDonald’s in Lewiston and Brown dropped off food for five families for Olsen to deliver.

“This woman is an absolute — I’ve never met anyone like her. She’s just incredible,” Olsen, 49, said, adding that Nathan Brown also deserves credit for the time he puts in.

The following week, they met in the parking lot of the Marden’s, and by then, the idea of having a network of people doing the same thing started to take shape.

Ashley Brown, right, presents her Winthrop neighbor, Shelley Gearheart with meals, flowers and a balloon celebrating Mother’s Day. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

Brown’s simple offer to provide a meal and a connection has now blossomed into a statewide network of people who are willing to provide the same kind of neighborly lifeline. The result has been Meals for ME, a Facebook group devoted to helping people make connections — without judgment — across the state.

The response has floored Brown.

“There’s a girl up in Bangor, who just lost her home because the relative she was living with died,” she said. “She’s cooking for families. Wouldn’t a 19-year-old have better things to do?”

On Friday alone, the page had 200 requests from people who want to join the community, he said. They have to answer a couple of questions, so people know the group is not handing out cash or other assistance.  Olsen said the page receives three times as many offers to help as people who need help.

While some donations have come in, Brown said she and her husband, a plumber who was laid off in December for the winter lull and has not yet started working again, are paying for ingredients out of their own pockets.

At the end of April, Brown launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to pay for a website and to accept donations to support the efforts of Meals for ME.

Brown said she understands the need for connection. She has experienced anxiety and depression herself and knows the sense of isolation that comes with that. And now she sees things she didn’t before.

“In this small and very fast journey, I have learned so much,” she said recently in Facebook Live video she posted. “There’s people I delivered food to that if I saw them on the street (before) I would have clenched my purse.”

These are people who are often overlooked, but who still need a connection, she said.

Medical researchers and epidemiologists are working around the clock to understand the novel coronavirus and how to protect people from COVID-19, the serious and potentially deadly respiratory disease it causes.

The conditions that led to the creation of Meals for ME, and a nonprofit organization now in the works, will eventually be contained and people will eventually go back to work. When those happen, Brown and Gearheart say they hope people will be able to slow down and appreciate a slower pace and the sense of community that has been fostered through the simple offer of a meal.

“I want to save the world, I really do,” Brown said to viewers of one of her Facebook Live posts. “And I believe I can start by saving our community.”

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