When Anthony Prusak returned to his Cleveland home from PCMA Convening Leaders 2019 in Pittsburgh last week, he still was thinking about what he’d heard at the annual conference. Also weighing on his mind were TSA agents at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport who have been working without pay due to the partial government shutdown.
Prusak, who is the vice president of business development at ABTS Convention Services, travels more than 60,000 miles a year between his Cleveland home and Miami, where ABTS is headquartered. He spends a lot of time at the Cleveland airport, and sees many of the same TSA officers frequently.
The shutdown — due to the standoff between President Donald Trump and Democrats over funding for Trump’s proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall — began on Dec. 22 and is now the longest in U.S. government history. It has affected an estimated 800,000 workers, including TSA employees, and agents at several airports have staged sick-outs in protest. Airports across the country are experiencing delays as a result.
As the people who do security checks of passengers and their luggage at airports, TSA agents are vital for air safety, Prusak said. “These people are our first line of defense at the airport,” he told Convene on Monday. “I just couldn’t imagine opening up a paycheck and there’s zero dollars in there. I consider them part of the hospitality industry — and this isn’t how they should be treated.”
Prusak said he was blown away by the Jan. 8 speaker lineup at Convening Leaders, especially PERIOD founder Nadya Okamoto, who told the audience that everyone has the potential to create social change the same way she has — making it possible for feminine-hygiene products to be provided to women in need. “She thought about something that people really need,” he told Convene. “She created something that’s really impacting people’s lives.”
Author Steve Pemberton spoke about being “good to each other, to our community, our country, and our citizenry — I took that to heart as well,” Prusak said. Tennis icon Billie Jean King drove the message home for Prusak, who told Convene he believes what she said about “every single one of us is an influencer.”
The 2019 event was his 10th Convening Leaders in a row, but Prusak said it is the first time he left feeling this energized. “I walked out of there and I really wanted to do something, to make a big change,” he said, adding that the speakers “touched my heart, they really did.”
Prusak asked himself what he could do to “disrupt and deliver” (Convening Leaders’ theme) for his community in Cleveland and thought about how he might somehow assist TSA agents at Cleveland Hopkins.
He wasted no time in contacting Todd Payne, a friend who is chief marketing and air services development officer at Cleveland Hopkins. Payne put Prusak in touch with the TSA lead at the airport, Steven Hogan, who explained that regulations stipulate that government workers can’t accept gift cards or money, but they can accept food. So Prusak came up with the idea to provide box lunches to 80 agents — or for one shift of agents. A total of 240 agents work at the airport over three shifts.
With his plan approved by the TSA, Prusak started a GoFundMe campaign that he shared on Facebook with the Northeast Ohio Foodies group. With 10,785 members, the private group was a potent source for guidance — a member originally suggested he start the GoFundMe page — and for reaching his monetary goal on the fundraising site. In less than 24 hours, he was close to meeting his $1,000 goal.
He was featured in a Jan. 11 story in Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer and on the 6 p.m. WKYC Ch. 3 (NBC) news that same night.
The donations started rolling in, he said. As of Jan. 14, donors had given $5,100 before fees.
“We now are going to be able to feed 240 TSA officers this coming Friday,” he said. “I was at the airport today and some of them saw me and said, ‘We can’t thank you enough for what you’re doing for us. It means so much.’”
Kevin O’Donnell, a friend of Prusak’s and owner of Victory Alley in downtown Cleveland, will supply the meals. John Selick, senior culinary manager at Sodexo Healthcare Services for University Hospitals Cleveland, is providing volunteers to help with meal prep and packaging. Someone in the NEO Foodies group is donating boxes, in case agents want to take the meals home.
The meals will be delivered Jan. 18, and Prusak plans to be there with his 12-year-old twin sons. “It’s important they see their dad being a good citizen,” he said. He also wants to be present to thank the TSA officers for their service. “It’s going to be an emotional day,” he said.
Prusak has received calls, emails, Facebook and Twitter messages from other people in the community who want to help in any way they can. If they raise even more money, he plans to feed agents on other days or find other ways to help them out.
“This has just taken off so fast. I can’t believe it,” he said. “I hope that what I’ve done will influence others and they will find some way to help someone. It’s a good feeling.”