(WASHINGTON) — BY: KELLY MCCARTHY
Anguilla has survived Category 5 hurricanes, but for the Caribbean island that relies heavily on tourism the coronavirus pandemic has proven to be even more devastating.
Among those trying to help the island recover are husband and wife restaurateurs Bob and Melinda Blanchard. The pair raised over $200,000 to help feed over 1,000 Anguillan families and now they’re looking to transform their world-renowned restaurant, Blanchards, into a food bank to continue their efforts.
“Hotels, restaurants, taxi drivers and everyone who relies on tourism is suffering greatly right now and it’s impossible to say when we will recover. We know people will come back and life will be good once again,” Melinda Blanchard told ABC News. “It’s just a matter of when that will happen and how hard it will be in the meantime.”
Anguilla, with a population just over 15,000, has had very few cases of coronavirus — in the single digits, according to local media reports — but travel bans have devastated the island’s tourism industry.
The Blanchards, who first opened their restaurant 25 years ago, took matters into their own hands to help the island by creating a COVID-19 food voucher program through their nonprofit organization, Blanchards’ Anguilla Children’s Fund. The program helps get local families food and basic necessities, as well as raise awareness about how to get the financial help the Caribbean desperately needs.
“Our first thought was to send food down to the island and convert the restaurant into a relief center,” Melinda Blanchard said. “As soon as we realized that it would be impossible to do that while practicing social distancing, we knew we needed another way to get food to the Anguilla community. We worked with grocery stores on the island to create what has turned out to be a very successful program.”
The Blanchards gave money to grocery stores, printed thousands of $50 food vouchers and had them distributed to the vulnerable population. “Families with more children received more vouchers,” Blanchard said.
“Anguillians still have many months of unemployment ahead and we need to get them some more food,” Blanchard said, adding that they are out of funds and looking to raise another $100,000 in order to “convert the restaurant into a food bank where people could stop by to get groceries on a regular basis.”
Anguilla resident Tarah Baker told ABC News, “This is much scarier than any hurricane. When people can’t travel from the U.S. and other countries, our hotel rooms are empty, restaurants are closed, taxis are parked and the government has substantially less income from taxes.”
Their new donation goal would also allow them to travel throughout the island and distribute food to people without transportation or those living in more rural areas, Blanchard explained.
The Blanchards have taken out loans and emptied savings just to “get through this challenging time” and said that on a personal level, “We just have to hope that the money holds out long enough to weather the storm.”
The first $213,000 raised was donated from people who know and love Anguilla, but Melinda Blanchard said fundraising during a pandemic presents challenges they have never faced.
“It’s completely different than after a storm because with COVID-19, everyone is suffering around the world so people who may have donated in the past, are not able to help now,” she explained.
“It’s hard to say what business will be like when we finally [re]open, but everyone is more than a little concerned,” she said. “We are completely reliant on tourists feeling comfortable getting on a plane and flying internationally. Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone can predict when that will be.”
The reason she and her husband “moved to the island so long ago had much more to do with the wonderful people than the weather or beaches,” she said.
“With that in mind, we’re hoping that the island’s loyal following will come back sooner rather than later — people who know Anguilla, love Anguilla. It’s like no other Caribbean island,” Blanchard said. “Our beaches have been rated as some of the best in the world. We’re known for our great selection of restaurants and more than anything, it’s one of the safest places on earth.”
The pair also turned the restaurant into a relief center after Hurricane Irma slammed the island in 2017.
“The restaurant was destroyed so we knew we would be out of business for a long time,” she said of the damage from the Category 5 storm. “Once we patched the roof with tarps, we were able to arrange our once beautiful dining room by the type of supplies.”
While the Blanchards’ foundation continues to works toward helping and healing, Melinda Blanchard explained that community is the key to their success.
“If there’s a lesson to be learned it’s that helping other people is the best remedy for getting through a difficult time,” she said. “There’s nothing at all we can do to bring people to the island, but by helping the community, we’re keeping busy and doing something good at the same time. That’s a whole lot better than complaining about the lack of business.”
The silver lining as they continue to raise money for the island is that despite the challenges from the pandemic, Blanchard said they have started to receive attention for their fundraising efforts.
“One wonderful surprise in the past week is that we’re receiving donations from people who have never even heard of Anguilla,” she said. “They may have been on a cruise or visited another island, but either way, they love the Caribbean and want to help the region as a whole. We are so very grateful to everyone who is helping.”
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