Like most college students, Ezra Gershanok, a junior at Penn State University, is home because of the pandemic. With lots of extra time on his hands, and fueled by an enterprising spirit, the Mt. Lebanon native is aiming to make a difference on the front line of the COVID-19 response.
Gershanok, along with three friends, has created the COVID Response Network, a nonprofit with the herculean goal of raising funds to purchase and distribute 100,000 disposable face masks before June 1.
The idea came to Gershanok, an economics major, while speaking with a business connection he had in China through another project, the Keyper — a cellphone case that can hold a student’s ID and dorm or apartment key — which he and his business partner, Jacob Halbert, created. In early April, the Keyper’s Chinese producer offered Gershanok and Halbert the opportunity to buy disposable face masks in bulk from a supplier.
“This was before the mandate that everyone had to wear a mask,” Gershanok explained.
Gershanok and Halbert met over a decade ago while attending the Jewish Community Center’s Emma Kaufmann Camp, and the two “shared the same bunk our entire childhood,” Gershanok said.
The entrepreneur reached out to family friend and former hockey coach William Goodman, president and co-founder of NFP Structured Settlements and chair of the board at the JCC. Gershanok is friends with Goodman’s son, Isaac, whom he also met at EKC.
Goodman got the ball rolling by purchasing 10,000 masks for the Jewish community.
“We wouldn’t be here without his help and support,” said Gershanok.
Then Gershanok decided to see if other organizations in the wider Pittsburgh community might also have a need for the masks.
“I put up a post on Facebook and someone from the Children’s Home reached out to us saying they needed 2,000 masks,” Gershanok said. “We set up a fundraiser and within two days raised $1,500.”
After the initial Facebook post, Gershanok and Halbert created the COVID Response Network with Brendan Bernicker, a Penn State graduate studying law at Yale University, and Upper St. Clair native Rayna Recht, a sophomore at Tulane University who also attended EKC.
Bernicker helped to create the nonprofit and is working to help it gain 501(c)(3) status and Recht assists with marketing and promoting its fundraisers.
The organization so far has donated masks to several organizations, including Jewish Family and Community Services, Community Food Bank, Jubilee Soup Kitchen, the Allegheny County Jail and the Community Kitchen Pittsburgh, Recht said.
Community Kitchen Pittsburgh is a culinary school that trains individuals facing barriers to employment, according to executive director and founder Jennifer Flanagan. That includes people who are or have been incarcerated, addicts and homeless individuals. The COVID-19 crisis forced the school to close and it is now focused on providing meals to those in needs.
“We just did a count and so far, have provided 31,000 emergency meals,” Flanagan said.
The COVID Response Network’s delivery of masks to Community Kitchen Pittsburgh was “perfect timing,” Flanagan stated. “They actually gave them to us before the governor requested everyone wear them all the time. My staff was coming in and it was a little nerve-wracking to come in without that type of personal protection. It was really nice and made everyone feel a lot more comfortable.”
The COVID Response Network also distributed masks to homeless shelters in New York, a Jewish nursing home in Harrisburg and organizations in Philadelphia and Tampa, Florida.
“We’re trying to focus on the communities that are most at risk for contracting or spreading the virus and are least served,” Gershanok explained. “That’s led us to more jails and prisons.”
The company recently met with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and will soon distribute 8,000 masks to jails and prisons across the state. They also are looking into supplying prisons in Alabama with masks.
“They have a 180% occupancy rate,” Gershanok noted. “The next outbreak will most likely be in Southern prisons. That was the trend in China and the same thing in New York at Rikers Island.”
The four young adults running the COVID Response Network are not just working to find organizations in need of the masks, raising money and placing orders; they also serve as mask delivery drivers.
“Jacob has been delivering masks in Florida and Brandon has done a lot,” Gershanok said. “Yesterday, he drove from New Haven to New York to Philadelphia and back to New Haven. He’s delivering masks to that entire part of the East Coast.”
While the entrepreneur is happy that he has been able to help, he feels that the need for him to do so points to something larger.
“It’s great that we’re able to do something important for places like the Children’s Home and jails, but government agencies are basically relying on 20-year-olds to get them essential equipment,” Gershanok said. “It’s great but it also highlights how unprepared we were and how desperate the situation really is.”
The nonprofit has distributed 38,000 masks as of press time. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.