As the old folk-tale goes, a canny, charismatic man lives in a village where everyone is needy but no one will share. He builds a fire, halls out a huge pot, fills it with water, adds a stone and begins to heat it and stir. One by one the neighbors come by with, “You know what would be great with that...” and make additions of their own until a delicious brew is enjoyed by all. It’s a parable about how sharing fills everyone up, as well as a tale about how one person, “amped” to DO something, can accomplish anything.
In our story, Peter Burnett is that guy. His “day job” is as a personal injury attorney at Burnette & Williams in Leesburg, but these days you can find him every day at 11 a.m. taking in food donations for the Ampersand Pantry Project at the old bank building across from McDonald’s on Main Street. He’ll be scrambling to affix large stickers to a Community Donations Billboard on the side of the building, and to a stand-up sign thanking that day’s businesses who contributed to the luncheon give-away. A line of cars forms until it reaches around the block.
In the line are families and individuals coping with layoffs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They typically serve in foodservice or cleaning jobs, but can come from pretty much anywhere in town, and line up like clockwork in cars, trucks, bicycles and on foot with strollers at 11:30 and until the 300 or so lunches provided run out. Volunteers hold back 40-50 lunches that they take to the food pantry at Cornerstone Baptist at 1 p.m. for mothers and anyone else who doesn’t have transportation to make it downtown.
Someone thought it would be a nice idea to give away flowers to cheer people up and they do, often with the aid of inspirational stickers that say things like, “Alone we’re only a drop but together we’re an ocean.” Regulars will tell you they now have a colorful bouquet on their tables at home to enjoy. Because someone asked if they had diapers, those too were added, and are now almost as popular as the food. On Saturdays the “menu” includes dog food for pets and on Sunday and holidays, there’s ice cream.
Since beginning this journey in mid-April, Peter can now tell you – to the penny – how much the least expensive diapers in town cost. (They’re at LIDL’s two locations in Ashburn, and run as low as 15 cents each with tax.) He also knows that the average family buys 2,700 in a given year. It isn’t just because Peter is a number’s guy – he’s driven to consider how sustainable this project may be, and how long it will be needed. As of Memorial Day, 10,000 meals and 25,000 diapers were dispensed.
“When we started, I thought we’d do 40-50 lunches in a day. How wrong I was! Yesterday we did 319, and every day is in the high two-hundreds or mid-three-hundreds,” he says, almost in awe. Initially, he approached his network for monetary donations thinking he would pay local restaurants their cost of providing food, thus helping them to sustain their business as well. As the cost per day approached between $1,200 and $1,500, he seized upon another idea – that of a “new kind of business lunch,” where service companies like Loudoun Insurance Group would team with restaurants like Jimmy John’s to sponsor a day.
Booking in that fashion, the stickers on the billboard have multiplied and he said he’s probably covered through mid-June. “If this continues into the summer – well, we’ll just have to get the word out.”
Soon, they’ll run out of wall showing supporters. Peter has been blown away not only by the community’s need but by its support. Early on, Gabriela Lamas, a George Mason University student, and her sister, Daniela, showed up and soon became full-time volunteers, scheduling food, reaching out to businesses, translating handouts into Spanish and coordinating other volunteers. The Creamers take apart packs of diapers and put them into Zip-Loc bags, while others assemble lunches on any given day, adding a piece of fruit and a juice box. Peter’s colleagues in the Ruritan and Rotary Clubs gather just to watch and pool their wisdom on who has what resources to help. “It’s so amazingly rewarding, I think I could sell tickets!” Peter exclaims.
So, why “Ampersand?” Peter explains, “We think of the ampersand as meaning ‘and then some.’ We do a good job as lawyers and then some. We do a good job of client service and then some. We make a commitment to the community and then some. Going that little extra is what makes the difference, and it’s contagious. If you watch these folks here, I mean, everyone is enjoying it, you’ve probably noticed.”
It’s worth noting that Peter was motivated as long ago as last fall by an article he saw about “Little Food Pantries, neighborhood repositories of food donations akin to the “Little Free Libraries” which make books available on stands in neighborhoods. “I thought, ‘Gee. That’s a cool idea.” He first approached local government authorities who suggested the corner of the police department on Plaza Street would be a good place for such a non-perishable food delivery system, but the idea became mired in red tape.
One citizen who did seize on the idea was Richard Fuller, the minister at Crossroads Baptist Church on Edwards Ferry Road. Peter built the box on his farm in Hamilton and installed it on church property in early January. He says, "We’d stock it with non-perishables every day or every other day and then, here comes the pandemic.” The crisis made the effort seem paltry – “All of a sudden there was no school lunch, no back-pack food deliveries,” so he started calling around.
You've seen this before: every outpouring of generosity from our community during the COVID crisis seems to have started with one person seeing a need and picking up the phone (or taking to Facebook or Facebook messenger.) Peter, as a longstanding business owner may have more friends than most, but – as also happens – when he began looking for a venue from which to distribute food in town, what came to mind was a bank building he himself owned on Main Street.
First he thought they’d put the food in the parking lot, but the team needed room not just to accept drop-offs of lunches prepared in a licensed, commercial kitchen, but also to assemble it in lunch bundles that could be quickly and easily distributed to families in waiting cars or bicycles. The obvious answer? Knock a hole in the wall of the drive-through and install a conveyor belt! From that point on, every single need he’s identified, someone has come through to fill it.
One friend, Ken Courter, a retired publisher and founder of Ashburn Cares, observed, “It’s a miracle. It’s one great idea that’s compounded into such a loving expression of kindness.”