After Michelle Brenner was furloughed from her job at a menswear store in Gig Harbor, Wash., she turned to comfort-food therapy.
Brenner, 45, made herself a huge pan of lasagna using her grandmother's recipe. Then, in a moment of pride after shopping for groceries (including frozen lasagna) for some of her neighbors, she got on her community Facebook page and wrote that frozen, store-bought lasagna could not compare to the real Italian homemade deal.
"Hello favorite friends - I delivered a ton of frozen family-size lasagnas today," Brenner wrote. "Now, this is not a problem by any means, lol. But you have a die-hard, full Italian lasagna lover living in your town."
She followed up with an offer:
"If any of you want some fresh homemade, no calorie counting lasagna, please let me know and I will gladly prepare it," she wrote.
Brenner set aside her $1,200 stimulus check to buy ingredients, and the requests soon began to trickle in.
First a retired neighbor showed up at her house, then an out-of-work friend came for a pan. After that, so many people started showing up, including strangers, that Brenner lost track.
Nearly three months and 1,200 pans later, Brenner is still at it, boiling noodles, cooking ground beef, mixing up tomato sauce and layering mozzarella, ricotta and Parmesan.
About eight hours a day, seven days a week, she helps feed people in her community - from hospital workers and first responders to single parents struggling without paychecks.
"We saw what a great thing she was doing, and we have this nice commercial kitchen that wasn't being used because of covid," said Le Rodenberg, 73, the club's president.
After Brenner used her stimulus check to buy lasagna ingredients for her first 60 giveaways, she decided to start a Facebook fundraiser that quickly netted more than $10,000 - enough for more than 500 pans. Then people began donating what they could - from $1 to $100 - when they picked up their orders.
"When word got out on social media, people from all over the world started donating to my cause," said Brenner, who is single and moved to Gig Harbor from Port Orchard, Wash., six years ago.
People have contributed more than $22,000 so far, and she said she hopes "to be making lasagna for many months to come."
For Brenner, who grew up helping her Italian grandmother and aunt in the kitchen, nothing says "I care" like homemade lasagna.
"It's a pan of love," said Brenner, who has been living on unemployment assistance since she was furloughed. "A lot of the people I make lasagna for have lost their jobs, and this is my way of saying, 'I understand and I'm here for you.' "