From Donkey Kong to online tips – raising funds for restaurant workers
After restaurants and bars in the Harrisonburg-Waynesboro-Staunton region closed or cut back to skeleton crews due to the coronavirus earlier this year, area residents rallied to help service industry workers.
One of the more unconventional fundraisers was Nevin Zehr, who hosted a livestream event in March as he attempted, over seven days, to beat Nintendo’s “Donkey Kong Country” video game trilogy in a bid to bring attention to his GoFundMe for Harrisonburg culinary district workers.
Laid off from his job as a dishwasher and cook at Bella Luna Wood-Fired Pizza, Zehr, 31, knew many of his friends in the service industry were facing significant financial struggles.
Through his video game fundraiser, Zehr raised more than $8,000, which he distributed as emergency aid to about a dozen service-industry workers, about half of whom are undocumented workers who did not receive coronavirus stimulus checks or qualify for unemployment insurance payments. “There were definitely some people who were in very, very difficult situations,” he says.
Another fundraiser, Staunton retiree Deborah Kushner, heard about folks in other communities creating virtual tip jars to help restaurant industry workers. Not being particularly tech-savvy, Kushner connected with Derrick Gerstmann, the co-founder and chief marketing officer at Staunton-based tech support firm FlossTech, to put together a similar site to help local workers.
Kushner and Gerstmann say they have no way of knowing how much money they’ve raised through their virtual tip jar. “[Workers] put in their information and people can tip them directly,” Gerstmann says. “We don’t have any access.”
More than 35 servers, cooks and industry workers have posted on the site, giving information about their struggles and listing their preferred payment apps.
Gypsy Torgerson, 23, signed up on the virtual tip jar site after being laid off from her job at Buffalo Wild Wings in Harrisonburg, but so far she hasn’t received any funds. “I wasn’t disappointed,” she says, however. “It was nice to be thought of.”
Torgerson, who lives in Staunton, didn’t apply for unemployment until three weeks after being laid off because she didn’t think the shutdown would last.
“It was a big change,” she says of the restaurant shutdowns. “I think it made a lot of people stop trusting the service industry, like I know a lot of us are looking at other jobs now. We’re not looking to serve anymore because it’s not reliable.”