Charlotte Harden and her mother, Gigi Wielezynski, awoke at the ungodly hour of 3 a.m. on Monday, May 11 to prepare 250 boxed lunches paid for by the Gary Sinise Foundation to feed the nursing staff at the Columbus VA in Ohio.
The two labored away in the kitchen of La Chatelaine, their family-owned French bakery and bistro which has been a staple in the Upper Arlington community since 1991.
The meals being prepared in the wee hours was not an ordinary takeout order. Rather, it was an opportunity to honor the men and women taking care of veterans whose military service has, in one way or another, contributed to their family’s narrative of realizing the American Dream.
"Everything we do, we do it out of love, we do it out of the respect of the country,” explained Harden, CEO of La Chatelaine. Her parents, Stan and Gigi Wielezynski, immigrated to the United States from Belgium in 1985 with Charlotte and her two oldest brothers, Tadeusz and Valerian.
Stan and Gigi Wielezynski’s dream would likely not have become a reality, Harden explains, were it not for the largest amphibious assault that took place 76 years ago in Normandy, France.
To the Wielezynski family, America’s World War II veterans — particularly those who were involved in the opening salvo in the fight to liberate much of France and Western Europe besieged by Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich — are sacrosanct.
Three years after La Chatelaine opened its doors, a tradition was born to commemorate the sacrifices and heroism of American service members in World War II.
For the last 25 years on the anniversary of D-Day, June 6, they’ve held a dinner at the original bistro where veterans from generations past and present join with the Wielezynski family and staff for an evening that celebrates their service to the nation.
The gatherings have turned bittersweet, in recent years, as the population of World War II veterans shrinks by the day. Yet at La Chatelaine, the memories and friendships of these uncommon men who have since passed away, remain as omnipresent as its Parisian decor. And to the Wielezynski’s, they will always be an extension of their family.
There was Ed Turlo, a "firecracker” of a man, who landed at Utah Beach on D-Day.
Joe Wells, who served in the Army Air Force as a flight engineer on a B-24 Liberator in the South Pacific, and was counted on each year to play taps during the annual D-Day celebration.
And lastly, there was Marion Gray, an Army medic who was among the first waves of troops to land at Omaha Beach on D-Day. Together, they were affectionately known as "the three amigos,” said Harden.
In 2014, the government of France honored Stan, who was raised in post-war Normandy, with the Ordre National du Mèrite Chevalier in recognition for his decades of serving veterans. The honor recognizes him with the rank of a knight.
La Chatelaine is a quintessential family-run business counting three generations of Wielezynskis working between the front and back of the house. The menu features recipes passed down from Stan and Gigi’s parents and from their own culinary escapades traveling in France.
In March, when the Columbus area was put under a stay-at-home order because of COVID-19, La Chatelaine, like its peers, furloughed a majority of its employees.
With the passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, they took steps to cover their finances by applying for a small business loan and paycheck protection to meet payroll.
At the outset of the crisis, Harden explained that her father was determined to keep the lights on and the business afloat, despite the tightened margins.
"My dad said, 'I don’t care. I don’t want to talk about shutting down. I don’t want to talk about giving up. We have to fight. You have to fight the virus. You have to fight through your fear. You have to fight for your business. You have to fight for your life.’”
Like their Boulangerie counterparts in France continuing to work amid the pandemic, La Chatelaine decided it too was their obligation to feed the people.
"Our core is bread. Our core is croissants, and we have a community that needs to eat,” said Harden.
During the last two months, from Tuesday through Friday, La Chatelaine made it a point of donating extra food on hand to the Columbus VA. On Thursdays, Harden and her father would drive down to Chillicothe VA Medical Center and deliver freshly baked treats like croissants and bread for veterans and healthcare workers.
Their good deeds and commitment to serving veterans did not go unnoticed.
"When I learned that the Gary Sinise Foundation was providing support to local businesses who might be suffering during the pandemic, La Chatelaine was my first thought because of how selfless this family business was during this difficult time,” explained Traci Washington, public affairs officer at Chalmers P. Wylie VA Ambulatory Care Center.
Washington put the Foundation in touch with Harden, to arrange lunches that would coincide with the tail-end of National Nurses Week.
On May 6, Harden received a phone call from Cristin Bartter of the Gary Sinise Foundation asking if La Chatelaine would be interested in making boxed lunches for nurses at Chalmers P. Wylie VA Ambulatory Care Center (Columbus VA). The effort is part of the Foundation’s Emergency COVID-19 Combat Service campaign.
Harden was speechless.
"You have to know how passionate we are for veterans just like Mr. Sinise,” she explained about how meaningful it was to cater lunches for the nurses tending to her adopted nation’s veterans.
"We can’t forget where we come from and what people did for us to have this kind of life.”
By the time lunches arrived at the Columbus VA, it was a welcome meal for many of the nurses in what has been a grueling few months.
"Sometimes, we don’t even have time to get a break, and if we do get a break, we’re lucky if we can even make it down to the bathroom,” said Randy Scott, a telehealth nurse who has been with the VA for the last six years.
"Having a boxed lunch delivered, it was wonderful and made it really nice for us.”
His sentiments were shared by Holly Mackey, a registered nurse, and supervisor in the infusion center.
"To know that a complete meal was being delivered directly to the nurse’s station was greatly appreciated,” she said. "It made those of us in the Oncology Department feel very appreciated.”
In the days after, Harden received several phone calls and messages on social media from grateful nurses who thanked her family and the staff for lunch.
She took it in stride. It was a modest gesture, after all, and an opportunity to once more show their love and respect for the country they call home.