JOHNSTOWN, Pa.—For one Transportation Security Administration (TSA) supervisor, it started with the free distribution of extra milk and expanded into cooking homemade holiday meals and then buying 250 pizzas for hungry youngsters who were closed out of school due to the coronavirus.
When the governor of Pennsylvania announced that schools would be closed in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, the local school system in the area donated its surplus of single-size cartons of milk to the St. Vincent DePaul Family “Soup” Kitchen so that the milk could be distributed instead of having it expire.
“I received a call from the Family Kitchen because they could not distribute all of the extra milk they had been gifted. We decided to suit up in masks and gloves and take the milk to where there would be a lot of kids in need, and we went to a low income housing unit with a simple sign— ‘Free milk’,” said Supervisory TSA Officer Donna LaMonaca, who works at the Johnstown-Cambria County Airport.
Within just a few minutes people came over and scooped up the milk. Hundreds of little cartons of milk were gone within a half hour, said LaMonaca, who has been volunteering at the Family Kitchen since she was a child working alongside her parents.
“What amazed me was how many young kids were walking around alone or in groups of other kids. I had a hard time sleeping that night because I could think about was those kids, what their situations were, where their parents were, and if they would get meals since they couldn’t go to school,” she said.
A few days later, LaMonaca, who has been working for TSA at the airport for 18 years, was at the Family Kitchen serving lunch, when a young boy came through the line alone and requested several meals to go. “We loaded him up and he attached them to his bicycle and rode off.” When he came back the next day, LaMonaca asked him where he was going and he told her he was handing out the lunches to his friends.
LaMonaca estimated that the youngster was riding four miles each way to pick up and deliver the meals. She told him she would meet him the next day at the same place where she had been distributing the milk cartons. She showed up with 15 prepared lunches and continued to do so for several days, bringing food that was left over at the end of the Family Kitchen’s serving hours. “I brought whatever I could get my hands on,” for what sometimes grew to a crowd of 100 hungry kids, she said.
On weekends, LaMonaca would buy pizzas and Happy Meals and bring them to where the children lived. She also contacted local businesses to provide her with some food. She convinced one to supply 50 free meals if she purchased 50.
Sometimes LaMonaca would bring her own children along with her. At one point her 12-year-old son was along and he was talking with one of the young girls about Easter. He was saddened after she told him that Easter was not a big celebration in her household and admitted she had never received an Easter basket. Later that day, LaMonaca’s son came to her with his piggy bank of savings and although he had been hoping to spend his money on an X-Box, he said he’d rather use his money to make Easter baskets for the kids who didn’t have them.
The family pulled together about 20 baskets stuffed with chocolate, jelly beans, small stuffed animals along with some other candy to distribute and they cooked a ton of food and pulled together 50 complete dinners with ham, rigatoni, sweet potatoes and green beans to distribute to those in the town who would not otherwise have had such an elaborate holiday meal.
LaMonaca’s birthday was on Sunday (May 3), and she asked her friends not to get her any gifts and instead consider donating funds for her to purchase some single-size pizzas to hand out. Her friends came through and she was able to purchase 250 pizzas for the children.
“We have been serving the community the best we can ever since we got the call about the milk,” LaMonaca said. “Hopefully when our community opens up after the pandemic eases, community programs will reopen and make sure a meal is provided. But for now we’ll continue to do what we are doing to get the kids fed.”