A low-stakes competition between friends has turned into a national movement aimed at lifting spirits and encouraging essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic.
When Scott McKenzie, an associate athletic director in Huntington, Pennsylvania, was furloughed from his job, he decided to try doing something new every week. Early in his furlough, he tried baking, and when he shared a photo of his results on Facebook, his friend Jeremy Uhrich commented, joking that he could make a better batch.
The pair squared off in a contest along with one of McKenzie's students to see who could make the better chocolate chip cookie, judged by the town's mayor. The student's cookies won in the end, and everyone left their extra cookies at the mayor's office, where they were enjoyed by police officers, employees, and those working in the 911 dispatch office.
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McKenzie said that it was that reaction that made them realize that they were on to something special.
"They were so appreciative of being recognized and that was all back in April when this was all new … people were just so thankful for being recognized and for having the risks that they were putting themselves (through) appreciated," McKenzie explained.
The response was so positive that they continued, setting up a Facebook group so others could participate. In just a week, the group had over 100 members.
In addition to giving cookies to essential workers, the group looked for others in town who may feel left out or in need of encouragement during the pandemic.
"We wanted to reach out to our essential workers and our front-line workers," said Uhrich. "Scott and I were blessed to be at home, safe, but we knew that there were a lot of people out there risking their lives. After that first week or two we realized that, although our community is small, there are others that need to be recognized, and it turned into finding different people, different businesses, and community members who we could recognize and acknowledge."
Since those early days, McKenzie has been recalled to his job, but he, Uhrich, and the other volunteers are still baking up a storm. Now, "Cookies for Caregivers" has over 1,000 members, and 23 similar groups have popped up nationwide. The original group has baked 1,500 batches, or more than 18,000 cookies.
"Early on, (my sons) were questioning, 'Why, Daddy, why is this house turning into a bakery and why do we have so many cookies,' but it was a great opportunity for me, not only to bake with my boys but to use it as an educational opportunity," said Uhrich. "... It was a wonderful chance for me to teach them some values and understand the importance of giving back and thanking people."