Frontline heroes of St. Francis Medical Center, Mary Nemeth, Barbara Mikulska and Viridiana Gonzalez.  Courtesy photo
Frontline heroes of St. Francis Medical Center, Mary Nemeth, Barbara Mikulska and Viridiana Gonzalez. Courtesy photo
Megan O’Donnell knows she has been blessed with a loving family, close friends and an enjoyable life.

So she wanted to give back when the coronavirus hit.

Thus, she and local restauranteur, John Balsamo formed the Hamilton Mercer County Chapter of the Front Line Appreciation Group (FLAG), which raises money to provide meals for first responders fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. In less than a month, Hamilton FLAG has raised more than $15,000 and fed nearly 1,400 frontline heroes, while also helping support area restaurants that have been severely impacted by statewide shutdowns.

While some might pat themselves on the back for such an endeavor, O’Donnell merely feels it is part of her Catholic calling.

“There is a quote I love and have said many, many times to my four children: ‘To whom much is given, much is expected.’ I believe each of us has the God-given ability to make things better for someone else,” O’Donnell said. “We might not be able to help everybody, but we can certainly help someone.”

O’Donnell is a product of St. Ann School and Notre Dame High School, both in Lawrenceville, and was Jesuit-educated at the University of Scranton. She has been a Notre Dame parent for nine years and is heavily involved in school fundraising. She and her husband, Dan, an alum who sits on the school’s Board of Governors, have put three children through the high school, and daughter Grace is an Irish senior. They are parishioners in St. John the Baptist, Allentown.

“My Catholic education has certainly shaped me into the person I am today,” O’Donnell said. “My mom, who passed away a few years ago, was a woman of great faith. Watching her over the years, always trusting that things would work out and having such an unwavering faith, was the greatest gift she gave me.”

Having Balsamo as a FLAG partner is also a pretty nice gift. Owner of Villaggio Iccara restaurant in Hamilton, Balsamo and his wife, Phyllis, are longtime friends of the O’Donnells. Their youngest son is a Notre Dame High School graduate, and Balsamo has regularly donated food trays or money to the school’s events. When O’Donnell discovered a FLAG chapter in North Jersey, she quickly teamed with Balsamo to form the Hamilton organization.

“I wanted to partner with a restaurant before launching the idea in the community.” she explained. “John immediately came to mind, given his history of being so generous and involved within the community.”

Along with Villaggio Iccara, meals are prepared by Jersey Girl Cafe, Classic Sub Shop and Heirloom Events, the caterer for Mountainview Golf Course and Princeton Country Club. They are responsible for packaging and delivering each meal, which O’Donnell feels provides a genuine understanding of first responder challenges.

“They get a glimpse of the fast-paced, nonstop, often chaotic environment when dropping off deliveries,” she noted. “They truly understand what our frontline heroes, especially those working on the COVID units of local hospitals, are dealing with daily.”

The original plan was to service one hospital, but that was expanded to three hospitals, along with Mercer County COVID-19 testing locations, local pharmacies, fire and police stations. The help provided is 100 percent dependent upon donations received. Group participation has fueled the drive, and O’Donnell receives supportive emails from frontline family members when their contributions arrive.

“There are countless people in the community donating to the cause and helping to spread awareness by sharing our posts on Facebook pages,” O’Donnell said. “It has truly been a community-wide effort.”

Notre Dame has also gotten behind O’Donnell and promoted FLAG at its April 6 “ND Cares Day.” Grace O’Donnell, an intern in the Notre Dame communications office, wrote an article about her mom’s group, which prompted numerous donations from the school society.

“I am overwhelmed but not surprised with the response from the entire community,” O’Donnell said. “I couldn't envision nicer, more accommodating people to work with, than the ones who really expressed an interest and followed through with working within the mission of FLAG of Hamilton. I believe everyone has a connection to someone on the front lines of the battle with COVID-19. I consider myself blessed to be able to play a role in bringing people together, and have complete faith that FLAG will continue to receive the donations it needs.”