[EDITOR'S NOTE — Difference Makers articles share stories of the local heroes making a difference during the extraordinary times of the COVID-19 pandemic. This section is made possible by Eastwood Mall and named in honor of Mark Eckert, who made a difference in the Mahoning Valley.]
YOUNGSTOWN — The social/philanthropy group Gals That Brunch Youngstown — organized by Jess Irwin and Katy Haybarger — will celebrate its first anniversary next month with its first in-person event since February.
The group hosts a monthly brunch at a local eatery while supporting a variety of local charities and small businesses.
The anniversary celebration will be a “Mask-Erade Halloween Event” on Oct. 24 at Provence Mills Event Center in Girard, 300 N State St., from 5-8 p.m. RSVP and ticket details are still to be determined, but interested parties are encouraged to follow @galsthatbrunchyo on Instagram for upcoming details.
Gals That Brunch was started in 2015 in Virginia Beach and today has chapters in more than 35 states including District of Columbia, as well as chapters in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. The Gals That Brunch mission is to bring women together to spend time and enjoy a meal. The Youngstown chapter has taken the operation a step further by adding a philanthropic effort to each brunch to support local small businesses and artists.
Haybarger, a Youngstown native, and Irwin, who is from Alabama, met while working as nurses in the ICU.
Irwin said she found an advertisement for Gals That Brunch on her phone while going through a period in her life that left her yearning for an outlet to connect with other women. After some deliberation, she decided to take a leap of faith and start the Youngstown chapter with support from Haybarger.
“[Haybarger and I] both were going through some transitions in our life that were leaving us feeling lonely and and hungry for something more, and neither one of us knew what that was, or what it looked like. I had a strong desire to connect the varying groups of friends that I had made since moving here,” Irwin said.
“It became very clear earlier on that it wasn't enough for us just to brunch with people. We wanted it to mean something so people would continue to come back,” she added.
While looking through Instagram at the people who’d signed up for the first brunch, Haybarger and Irwin noticed one of the attendees, a mother to a child with leukemia, was still making an effort to spend time with other women during a difficult time.
“I texted Katie and I was like, ‘Something about this just really struck a chord with me.’ … We have the ability to have all these women in a room at once to make changes and impact. So we're giving back, that they're also getting something out of it,” Irwin said.
Haybarger told Mahoning Matters she wants to use Gals That Brunch as an avenue to introduce the community to local creators and businesses.
“My whole life I’ve heard that there’s nothing to do in this town,” Haybarger said. “I just got so sick of hearing that because I believe the complete opposite. I believe there are so many talented and skilled artists, and interesting individuals in this town who have so much to offer and people just haven't done the legwork to find them.”
“It was part of my first mission to recognize the people in the businesses in the community that we can connect with and we can start to realize that Youngstown is so vibrant. It's so lively, and it has so much to offer,” she added.
During their first year, Gals That Brunch Youngstown has hosted gatherings at local eateries and venues such as Sundog Cellars Winery & Cidery, Homestead Kitchen & Cocktails, Concept Studio and Bistro 1907 by Mark Canzonetta. The group has raised money for a variety of organizations, including Prayers for Joey, The Esther Home/Project 180 and Trees for a Change.
Gals That Brunch Youngstown has also hosted a variety of guest speakers, such Angela Gossard, a wedding planner; Vince Brancaccio, chief executive officer for Help Network of Northeast Ohio; and Nicole Ranttila, a clinical psychologist. Also featured have been local artists like The Super Babes and Brandi Booth to keep attendees entertained.
During Ohio’s state-mandated shut down of event venues and restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic, Irwin and Haybarger were eager to keep the sentiment of Gals That Brunch alive even though they couldn’t meet in person.
“I think one of the amazing things about nurses is that when trauma strikes, our reaction isn't to retreat, it's to run into it head on,” Haybarger said. “I think that was just mine and Jess’ [initial] reaction to this shocking abrupt change in our world and in our town, and we immediately jumped into solving.”
Through Venmo donations, Gals That Brunch Youngstown donated roughly 200 pizzas from Avalon Downtown Pizzeria and Westgate Pizza Co. to different emergency rooms health care facilities in the Mahoning Valley.
“We decided to start a kindness challenge or pay it forward challenge, and we challenged different individuals in the community, different businesses in the community to do some kind of big act of kindness and post about it, and then challenge the next person so there was this really cool chain reaction of different just random acts of kindness around town that stemmed after some from after the pizza deliveries,” Haybarger said.
The Gals That Brunch Youngstown’s pizza donations gained recognition from Christan-music songwriter Laura Daigle on Instagram. Daigle has 2 million Instagram followers and chose the group as the winners of her kindness challenge, Haybarger said.
In addition to giving back during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gals That Brunch Youngstown still made an effort to support local entrepreneurs and professionals by hosting speakers on Instagram Live.
“We decided, ‘Well, we can't have these brunches right now but we've always been bigger than brunch so we don't need a reservation or a physical space,’” Irwin said. “We can still be Gals That Brunch without a brunch. We can promote people, we can [use] live video.”
As businesses have started to reopen, Haybarger said she and Irwin are confident in hosting a safe brunch in October.
“There's a lot of regulations in place that keep people safe now,” she said. “It's not dangerous like it was the beginning of this outbreak and it just felt so ingenuine to not celebrate all that we've accomplished with our community here so we're excited to celebrate our one year anniversary.”
Haybarger said tickets for October’s brunch will be under $50 and that Gals That Brunch Youngstown is collaborating with Provence Mills Event Center to pick a beneficiary.