McALLEN — Gabriel Fuentes struggled to hold back tears as he looked around his McAllen restaurant, Nuri. Tables were stacked on top of each other, chairs were piled at one corner. There was no one eating in the restaurant; they’re no longer allowed to.
Nuri is usually a lively spot in the afternoon, with customers indulging in the restaurant’s Asian-Mexican cuisine – Korean barbecue tacos, French fries topped with kimchi. But on Friday, the only sounds that could be heard came from the kitchen, where chefs prepared an endless stream of meals to-go.
Fuentes said that it is unclear how long Nuri will be able to keep serving with the pandemic raging, but what he is sure about is that he will do everything he can to help his community.
For the past week, Nuri has been collaborating with Project COVID Care, a local group that has been delivering meals and supplies to self-isolated elderly across the Rio Grande Valley.
Every day, Project COVID Care tells Fuentes how many meals they need and he prepares them, all at no cost.
Fuentes said that he never hesitated about being a part of the organization “because it is just what we do.”
“We have always done things like this, our community has built us up from a food truck to here,” he said, stretching his arms to show the brick and mortar restaurant Nuri transitioned into in 2017. “We are here because of the people who back us, so how could we not give back to them?”
Fuentes stood in the dining area, where a table is supposed to be. As he spoke of how social distancing precautions have caused him to worry about the standing of Nuri, he looked at one of his employees, who was preparing rice bowls that were going to be donated to Project COVID Care.
“Supporting our community in this way, even though we can’t really see the light at the end of the tunnel right now, was just never a question for us,” he said. “But let me tell you what, our community is backing us up so much, so even if I am the last one here cooking, we are going to do everything we can to save our business and be here for our community.”
Fuentes learned about Project COVID Care through Aylaia Sifuentes, who ate lunch at Nuri last Monday. That day, the restaurant prepared food for students who had extended spring breaks and needed a meal. She saw that many of them were left over and suggested Fuentes donate them to the group.
Since then, Nuri has been the only restaurant providing meals for Project COVID Care, which has more than 30 volunteers and serves 16 homes in need. In addition to delivering meals, volunteers distribute supply kits and pick up prescriptions for the elderly.
“We are helping people, elderly, who can’t help themselves right now,” said Johnny Llanes, a nurse practitioner and the group’s founder. “Those who don’t have family with them and are terrified to go to the store.
“We are representing the elderly, since they are the most vulnerable population right now, advocating for them through all of this.”
He recalled a 76-year-old Edinburg woman who he dropped food and groceries to, who told him that she tried to go to the grocery store but could not find anything.
“I did not know what I was going to do,” Llanes said the woman told him. “I was about to go outside to cut the nopalitos (cactus) outside, so that I could eat because I did not have any food.”
Elizabeth Saenz, one of the lead coordinators of Project COVID Care, said it is important to remember the elderly despite the chaos and confusion caused by the pandemic.
“In all this craziness, we forget the people who cannot fight for themselves, and they are the most vulnerable,” Saenz said. “Let’s come together and let’s help them. They are the pillars of the community, they paved the way for us.”
“So if we can just go after work, take some food to them and sit down and have a conversation from a safe distance, it makes their day, it really does. All this does is take time to do, if you don’t have anything to donate, you could just take time to make a delivery or call someone who is elderly and probably scared.”
If you would like to volunteer for Project COVID Care, contact (956) 802-7540.