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Leesburg attorney feeds community 7 days a week

Left: Peter Burnett, a Leesburg attorney and founder of the Ampersand Pantry project, sits with Gabriela Lamas, a George Mason University junior and lead volunteer with the project.

Left: Peter Burnett, a Leesburg attorney and founder of the Ampersand Pantry project, sits with Gabriela Lamas, a George Mason University junior and lead volunteer with the project.

The coronavirus pandemic has cleared the schedules of law firms statewide. But for Leesburg attorney Peter Burnett, his days are busier than ever before.

“We’re out here for our community seven days a week. We’re tired, real tired, but we’re going to keep going,” Burnett said, who practices personal injury law.

Following inspiration from the Little Free Libraries program, Burnett put his woodworking skills to the test in January and built a “little free food pantry” outside the Crossroads Baptist Church to help feed the community.

When COVID-19 closures began in early March, Burnett decided to take the project one step further to help community members who were feeling the economic impact of the pandemic. He teamed up with his favorite local restaurants and began giving out lunches to those in need.

And just like that, the Ampersand Pantry Project was born.

Through partnerships with local restaurants, the project’s volunteers have been offering free lunches to the community every day since April 16. On the first day, Burnett and his team handed out 25 lunches. On the second day, they distributed 50 meals.

They now pass out 350 meals every day.

“We thought we would be done by the end of May, that we would’ve gotten a handle on COVID-19 and people would be getting back to work,” Burnett said. “We quickly realized this is more serious than we thought.”

The pantry is set up as a drive-thru in a former bank building in downtown Leesburg. Every morning around 10 a.m., Burnett and his project partner Gabriela Lamas, a junior at George Mason University, pick up food from volunteering restaurants.

By 11 a.m., the volunteers begin setting up at the pantry for food distribution to begin at 11:30 a.m. sharp. At 1 p.m., Burnett travels to the original food pantry at Crossroads Baptist Church to pass out a last round of lunches before wrapping up for the day.

“This project is not one of those things where you just line up for food and go. We have built relationships with all of our recipients and have gotten to know each one of them,” Lamas said.

Lamas read about the Ampersand Pantry Project in an April article by the Loudoun Times-Mirror and immediately contacted Burnett to get involved. She has since become a leading volunteer of the project and part-time employee at Burnett’s firm.

“Gabriela has been super committed… Together, the two of us work through the logistics,” Burnett said.

In addition to lunches, Burnett’s team passes out diapers and dog food. On Mother’s and Father’s Day, they gave out cookies and ice cream; on the Fourth of July, a nearby church assembled “gift buckets” with toys.

Gabriela Lamas hands out diapers with her self-made “social distancing stick” at the drive-thru pantry on Edwards Ferry Road in Leesburg.

Gabriela Lamas hands out diapers with her self-made “social distancing stick” at the drive-thru pantry on Edwards Ferry Road in Leesburg.

Burnett has since begun giving families a carnation with their meals every day.

“One of our recipients comes to get lunches for her special education students and keeps the flower for herself, which she says is the highlight of her day,” Lamas said. “It’s amazing how small of an act can go such a long way.”

With $100,000 raised by 280 donors and nearly 4,000 hours of work, the Ampersand Pantry Project has donated more than 25,000 meals and 100,000 diapers to the Leesburg community as of press time.

But Burnett said the project isn’t slowing down anytime soon – if anything, it will continue to grow.

“We’re trying to look at how we can start the beginnings of our transition, if you will, to figure out ways to engage the folks we’re seeing a lot of,” Burnett said, noting that his overall goal is to bring in community members who have benefited from the pantry to start volunteering with the project, as well.

“This project could not be possible without our dedicated and hard-working volunteers,” Lamas said. “We all come from very different walks of life, but we all have one goal: to help the people in our community.”

To donate and learn more about the Ampersand Pantry Project, visit the Burnett & Williams website.
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