Column: Encinitas woman finds special way to thank health care workers

Syndee Wood collects a tray of food from Chicks Natural restaurant in Encinitas to take to hospital workers.
Syndee Wood collects a tray of food from Chick’s Natural in Encinitas to take to hospital workers.

While most people were watching the Super Bowl Sunday evening, Syndee Wood was getting ready to deliver a dozen pizzas to the health care staff at Scripps Memorial Hospital in Encinitas.

Since Dec. 12, the community college instructor from Encinitas has been making nightly drop-offs of free meals to feed anywhere from 40 to 80 hospital workers in the intensive care unit, emergency room, labor and delivery, pharmacy, lab, housekeeping and other departments.

Wood declines to take credit, simply saying the food is a thank-you gift from the community.

But as word got out, five ICU nurses and two doctors recently approached a colleague who is a longtime friend of Wood, some with tears in their eyes. They asked her to relay their gratitude to Wood for the meals she has been delivering for the past two months.

What started as a one-time delivery of Pandora’s Pizza in memory of Alex Nava, the son of her best friend who died at age 19, has grown into a project called “Feeding Our Frontline Heroes.”

After delivering the pizza to the Encinitas medical center and snapping photos, Wood posted on social media that she had discovered a way to support health care workers and small restaurants during the pandemic.

“When I got home, I had a slew of requests from friends wanting to give me money,” she reports. “They asked, ‘Will you do it again?’ I told them, ‘I’ll do it again tomorrow.’ By the time I woke up in the morning, I had enough money for two nights of food deliveries.”

Almost without a break she, with the help of nearly 40 neighbors and friends, has been telephoning local North County restaurants and ordering burritos, wraps, paninis, pizza and other foods that can be individually wrapped and eaten on the run by harried medical staffers.

“It just grew and grew and grew,” Wood says of the public support. It also is a win, win, win scenario: health care workers get nutritious meals, local restaurants suffering from pandemic cutbacks receive a $200 to $300 order, and the San Diego community gets to give back to those on the front lines.

Wood, who has four grown children and teaches English and writing at Palomar, MiraCosta and San Marcos community colleges, says she’ll keep making deliveries until the money runs out.

When I talked to her on Feb. 7, she had raised nearly $20,000 and had enough funds left to cover 14 more days of deliveries. She tacks her Venmo address for donations onto her social media posts.

Wood declined to set up an online fundraiser, such as GoFundMe, to avoid the cost of a payment processing fee. But recently she teamed up with Impact-Cubed, a nonprofit that helps other nonprofits. It set up a Feeding Our Frontline Heroes web page for her, and donations made through it are tax deductible.

Her kindness has been catching.

While Wood focuses on Scripps Encinitas and on small eateries in North County, other friends were inspired to make food deliveries to two local Kaiser hospitals and Sharp Chula Vista. Another was planning a meal drop-off at Scripps Green Hospital.

An Encinitas Brownie troop donated six dozen boxes of Girl Scout cookies.

Eleven-year-old twins heard of the deliveries and donated some of their Christmas money. Their mom dropped off meals one night last week.

A woman who credits the hospital with recently saving her brother’s life when he had COVID-19 gave $1,500.

An anonymous $150 donor requested that breakfast burritos be delivered to the CAT scan department at the hospital “because I know how hard they work.”

A man whose wife spent her last days at the hospital volunteered to deliver one night as a way of giving back for the staff’s kindness.

When a restaurant manager told Wood she would try to give a discount on the hospital order Wood declined, emphasizing she wanted to pay full price because the money also was intended to help local businesses stay afloat.

“She broke down into tears, telling me that she wasn’t sure they would make it and just how grateful they were for this business,” Wood relates. “That was Christmas Eve .... We both acknowledged, tearfully, what a beautiful gift it all was.”

Although she doesn’t seek personal plaudits, she was chosen as U.S. Rep. Mike Levin’s Constituent of the Month in January, and he recognized her in the Congressional Record. “Our hospitals and ICU’s continue to hit devastating capacity numbers, leaving our medical staff with longer hours and hectic shifts with not much time to sit down for a refueling meal,” he noted.

Scripps Encinitas operations chief Steve Miller called the hospital fortunate to receive this outpouring of community support. He said Wood’s meals have lifted the spirits of staff as they work long and often difficult hours caring for our patients. “We are grateful for her warm-hearted effort.”

Wood says she had planned to write a textbook over winter break but, instead, she is able to tell a restaurant it’s getting a big order, then she gets to deliver food, love, and support to hospital workers every day.

“This gives so much goodness at a pretty horrible time,” she says. “It gives life much more meaning.”

— Diane Bell is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune