Within the past five weeks, a staggering 26.5 million American workers have filed jobless claims as unemployment continues to skyrocket during the COVID-19 crisis. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics from a Fortune Magazine article, the 26.5 million people joined another 7.1 million Americans who were unemployed as of March 13, prior to the crisis, and this adds up to the worst unemployment rate, 20.6%, since 1934.
As some Americans begin to struggle to put food on the table across the country, U.S. Military Academy cadets in the Northern Virginia area are doing their part to help community members overcome their personal predicament.
Class of 2023 Cadet Jack Felgar, of Falls Church, Virginia, jumped at the chance to help his mother, Julie, as she became involved with La Colectiva. The organization helps the immigrant community in several different facets, including collecting food and donations as many immigrants lost their jobs. She used her Facebook account and the app NextDoor to put the word out and the response was tremendous, according to Julie Felgar. They have received help from three international cadets staying with them during the pandemic and a fourth cadet who lives nearby.
“She mentioned the need to us and asked us if we would like to take it on as a service project—we were game,” Jack said of him and his fellow cadets. “A ton of families started dropping food off at our door and sending money. We took over the organizing in terms of collecting the food, shopping for the food with the money donated and organizing everything.”
To date, they have received more than $1,200 in cash and about 50 grocery bags worth of food, Jack said. He said the food in most bags included pasta, oats, apples, bananas, tuna, apple sauce, peanut butter, canned beans, milk and eggs, to name a few items.
“Once La Colectiva realized how much food and money we could generate, they asked if our house could become a warehouse of sorts for collection and for this to be an ongoing project—we agreed,” he said. “We have a lot of people in our house, so we have a volunteer force built in, which limits exposure to others during this weird time.”
Jack created an excel spreadsheet to categorize and distribute the food items evenly and then in turn received help from four cadets to buy the food, split up the items and make bags for the economically disadvantaged families.
Class of 2023 Cadets Ruganzu Divin Mulisa from Rwanda, Cobna Mannah from The Gambia and Ahmad Alshishany from Jordan are all staying with the Felgar family during the pandemic.
“Divin, Cobna and Ahmad are staying with us because they had nowhere to go,” Julie, who is originally from Zimbabwe, said. “As an immigrant myself, we took them in.”
Jack, a first generation American, became acquainted with each of the international cadets in some capacity at the U.S. Military Academy. Mannah was his roommate during Cadet Basic Training and one of his best friends in his company, H-2, he said. Mulisa lived a few floors down from them in the barracks and asked if he could stay with them during spring break, which became extended due to COVID-19. Alshishany met Jack through a friend at USMA and asked if he could stay at his house as he preferred to not be isolated on campus.
“We are fortunate to have the room in the house,” Jack said. “My mom always opens our doors to friends and family in need of lodging. Our house is always busy.”
Jack said they have all been very grateful to stay with them during these times and they were very willing to help volunteer with the service project.
“I think it’s important to note how there is this idea of civic duty going around the country right now and that is a unique experience for them,” he said. “For example, Ahmad is Muslim, so he has just started to fast for Ramadan. While we were packing bags last night, after sunset, he left to go pray and break his fast … after that, he came back to help us finish the bags. That shows a lot of character and his determination to help other people. I am grateful to have friends like them.”
Also helping is Class of 2023 Cadet Anna Spear, who lives a few minutes from the Felgar family. Spear and Felgar go back prior to Cadet Basic Training as they would meet up to do hikes to prepare themselves for West Point. Now, she is a part of the team helping families get through the current struggles.
“She helped with the shopping and also came over to the house and we spent hours packing bags with all the different items we had,” Jack said. “We ended up with 30 large bags of food packed … and about 30 additional large boxes of random food items that were donated. We were asked by La Colectiva to focus on 30 families.”
Once the cadets put everything together, La Colectiva sent representatives to come out and pick up the bags from the Felgar’s porch and deliver them to the families, so it allowed the cadets to maintain their social distancing and safety, Julie said.
All in all, the cadets stepped up and helped the local community when it needed it the most. However, it started with the generosity of people donating within the community.
“The response was incredible,” Jack said. “I didn’t know most of the people who brought food/supplies to the house. I think it really shows how much people want to help during these times, but sometimes they just do not know a good way to do it. If you give them a way to help, most people will take advantage of that.”
Jack’s background before West Point, including both of his parents being immigrants as his dad is from Montreal, Canada, as well as his stepdad being from Brazil, played a huge part in knowing that he needed to help in some way.
“This effort was focused on immigrant families,” he said. “With the service industry taking such a large hit recently, people are really struggling to feed their families. When I used to work at a restaurant, many of the workers lived paycheck to paycheck.
“With their kids home from school and no free school lunches,” he added. “It can be a struggle to eat multiple meals a day.”
This unique experience of people coming together to help each other is a concept that the international cadets are more than happy to be a part of to help the bigger cause—helping their fellow man.
“It all goes back to what I was taught growing up and what I’m taught daily at the academy,” Mulisa said. “Having compassion, doing the right things always, taking care of the people around me and being a leader of character.
“I thought Americans helped each other in this way at the grass roots level through donations and volunteering,” Mulisa added. “It happens in my country, the Rwandan culture teaches helping those in need, rising to the occasion and serving one’s community.”
Mulisa spoke about this experience being impactful beyond the synergy used to make this effort work, especially on a personal level.
“I believe this has created lifelong friendships among us even outside the military environment,” he said. “It has also given us an opportunity to learn from each other’s diverse cultures.”
Jack added this experience introduced all the international cadets to the neighborhood communities in the United States, and that we can come together during the hard times. More importantly, outside of the lessons it taught them about meeting different types of Americans, is that this communal undertaking of helping others and being able to do it together in a non-military environment is something special that they will have for a lifetime.
“I already know that we will remember these times forever,” Jack said. “We have gotten to know each other well … we all bring different perspectives to the table and the discussions we have at dinner are very interesting.”