TRI-CITIES (WJHL) – The Region Ahead alliance, a local group that tackles important issues in the area, wants to give back to those still fighting daily on the front lines of the pandemic.

They want to bring meals right to the healthcare workers at seven of the hospitals in our region seeing the most COVID-19 patients.

Monday marks the start of the ‘Helping Heroes’ campaign and already $20,000 has been raised to feed local healthcare workers as they battle COVID-19. Organizers hope the community will rally behind this cause.

“They desperately need it. They desperately need our thanks, our support, our love, and just saying ‘thank you for what you are doing. Thank you for keeping our region safe,'” said Andy Dietrich, Region Ahead co-founder.

Dietrich said the campaign started as a question: ‘what can I do to help healthcare workers?’

The answer became providing lunch and dinner boxes at local hospitals to take one small burden off of their shoulders. They also are collecting restaurant gift cards for hospital staff to use after work.

“I think it’s just important to have something that is easy for them, they don’t have to think about it. I think it’s a nice gesture to say, ‘thank you, we are thinking about you,'” said Lottie Ryans of the First Tennessee Development District.

This campaign comes as our region has hit pandemic records for COVID-19 hospitalizations just in the past month, overwhelming hospital staff once again.

“They’ve had no break. We’ve been able to go back to school and go back to work and things like that, but they continue to take care of the patients,” said Ryans.

Nurses have told News Channel 11 throughout the pandemic, fighting COVID every day is exhausting.

“This is different than what I’ve seen in 20 years of nursing. It is very real and it is very hard,” Tiffany Hodge, a Johnson City Medical Center Nurse, told our News Channel 11 crew on a tour of the COVID ICU unit on Aug. 17.

Morgan May, JCMC Chief Nursing Officer, agreed.

“It’s the emotional exhaustion that is what brings people down, when you don’t see an end in sight for something that doesn’t have to be this way,” May told News Channel 11.

That is why something as simple as providing meals, fuel for those fighting the COVID battle daily, is the goal of the ‘Helping Heroes’ campaign.

“We have not forgotten about you. We know things are bad. We know things are hard. But this is just a little amount of appreciation we can show as a region to say ‘thank you for all you are doing.’ We have not forgotten you,” said Dietrich.

Ryans says this initiative is also a great way to support local businesses during a tough time.

“It’s really a wonderful way to be a win-win. For the local businesses to be a part of saying ‘thank you,’ but also to bring business to them, it’s a beautiful blending of what Region Ahead started out to be,” said Ryans.

If you would like to make a donation to help get these meals to healthcare workers, or if you are a local business and want to donate food or gift cards, head to the Region Ahead website.

Donations are tax-deductible.

Region Ahead hopes within the next two weeks to start getting food out to healthcare workers.

The organization is also partnering with local chapters of the United Way and area Chambers of Commerce to identify where to buy the meal boxes.