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California man spent $25,000 to donate care packages to medical staff

  • As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the US, Los Angeles-based fashion retailer Peter Russell wanted to do something to thank the people on the front lines of the fight.
  • He used his contacts in the fashion industry to ask for items to gift to healthcare workers, and received over $100,000 worth of designer clothing and accessories.
  • Russell also personally spent $25,000 on items like face masks and groceries to send to hospital workers, inspired simply “to brighten peoples’ spirits.”
  • “Peter is the fairy godfather of nurses,” said Jillian Hince, a nurse who received items from Russell. “You’re used to seeing celebrities or sports figures receive gifts from companies and brands, so for this stranger to recognize nurses is astounding.”
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Justine Kahn has seen more tragedy in the last two months than she’s experienced her entire life.

As a pediatric oncologist in New York City, 37-year-old Kahn has been on the front lines battling COVID-19 in one of the hardest hit areas in the world. Since the virus began ravaging the United States in early March, her days have been consumed with round-the-clock shifts, research, and telehealth conferences as she works to ensure the health and safety of her patients.

Then, on April 8, she got a phone call she’ll never forget: Her grandmother had been diagnosed with COVID-19. At 98 years old, Kahn’s grandmother — whom she describes as the light of her life — was considered very high-risk. Four days later, she died in Kahn’s arms.

“It was very surreal and devastating,” Kahn said. 

Justine Kahn and her grandmother Courtesy of Justine Kahn

Justine Kahn and her grandmother.

Courtesy of Justine Kahn

Between being entrenched in a viral hot zone and grieving the sudden loss of her grandmother, one thing helped lift Kahn’s spirits: She received several boxes worth of gifts from a man she’s never met, but who she’s come to call “Mother Theresa.”

That would be Peter Russell, a 40-year-old fashion wholesaler based in Los Angeles. Russell has been in the business for 14 years working as a liaison between popular, elite brands and boutiques around the country. Now, he’s using those skills and his contacts in the fashion industry to provide PPE, designer clothes, shoes, and accessories to the medical professionals who need them.

After Kahn put a call-out on social media, Russell donated boxes of personal protective equipment, and even threw in some designer jeans and jewelry.

“I’m blown away by his generosity and focus on this mission to bring joy to people who are working on the front lines of this pandemic,” Kahn said. “It reminds me that there is something to look forward to outside of this.”

Justine Kahn at work Courtesy of Justine Kahn

Justine Kahn at work wearing an face mask sent by Peter Russell.

Courtesy of Justine Kahn

Russell’s mission began in mid-March after hearing the news of hospital PPE shortages nationwide. As his fear grew for the medical professionals on the front line, including his niece, so did his will to fight. 

Russell contacted a former boss with a factory in China. Soon after, he was purchasing thousands of dollars worth of masks and having them shipped to the US to donate to nurses and doctors around the country. But he wanted to do more so he decided to contact brands like Moussy Vintage Jeans to see if he could purchase items at a discount to donate to frontline workers. 

“I bought like five pairs of jeans and started gifting them, and I got such a big response that I started buying and gifting more,” Russell said. 

Russell then had another idea — reach out to other brands, stores, and boutiques to see if they’d be willing to donate to his effort. The response was overwhelming, and began a nationwide initiative of gifting designer merchandise to medical professionals. So far, over a dozen high-end fashion brands and retailers across the country have donated to Russell’s efforts providing thousands of dollars worth of clothing, shoes, and purses. 

Peter Russell gifting nurses courtesy of Peter Russell

Russell gifting care packages to healthcare workers.

Courtesy of Peter Russell

Sharon Segal, who owns the boutique Sharon Segal & Nina Segal in Westlake Village, California, put multiple gift bags together to send to Russell for frontline workers around the country. The gift bags included pants, shirts, beauty products like hand creams and soaps, bath salts, and perfume. They also included personalized thank you cards.

“These medical professionals are putting their lives on the line to help the American people,” Segal said. “It’s like the military. They are willing to go in and do a job that could potentially kill them or make them ill, and they’re willing to go in and do that for our benefit.”

“If I could send them a couple of things to brighten their day, that’s nothing compared to what they’re doing for us.” 

Maggi Mittleman, who has owned Zabayon in Manalapan, NJ  for the last 18 years, donated $3,000 worth of items that included clothing, gift certificates, and even a virtual shopping spree,while Denise Lucia, owner of Katia Boutique in Houston, Texas donated 20 purses worth over $15,000. TAGS, a brand and store in Los Angeles, sent hundreds of articles of clothing totaling over $100,000. 

Donated clothing items courtesy of Peter Russell

A box of donated clothing items.

Courtesy of Peter Russell

The donations poured in despite the horrendous financial impact COVID-19 had on many of these small businesses, forcing most of them to close their doors to customers for the foreseeable future. 

“It’s been hard,” Segal said. “We had to let all of our employees go, which was the hardest day of my working life, but we have nothing coming in.”

“But I still felt compelled to donate. I believe the happiness it could bring frontline workers in their day far outweighs me, making a few bucks. It doesn’t even compare.”

Peter Russell's trunk full of gifts courtesy of Peter Russell

Russell’s trunk full of care bags waiting to be gifted.

Courtesy of Peter Russell

Russell says he’s spent approximately $25,000 out of pocket on this effort on PPE, including filtered masks, designer clothes, astronomical shipping costs, and he’s also used his own money to provide food donations to various nonprofits. He began a GoFundMe with $500 of his own money to help sustain his efforts, and it has since reached over $13,000 in donations.

“I was raised in Boston by my single mom. My father was in and out of jail and never around. We were very poor,” Russell said. “My first job in fashion, I became very close with the owner and his wife. They were so good to me and took me in. Just seeing how generous they were made me want to be the same when I started making money.”

And what began as a small initiative billowed fast like wildfire through social media. Russell would post about his efforts and donations, and soon people were nominating nurses and doctors from around the country. That’s how 37-year-old Jillian Hince, a pediatric nurse in Los Angeles, met Russell. She received name brand items like a cashmere sweater, handbag, jeans, a romper, and sunglasses. So did more than 50 other medical professionals in her network around Southern California. 

Nurse Jillian Hince with a designer bag sent by Russell.

Nurse Jillian Hince with a designer bag sent by Russell.

Courtesy of Jillian Hince

“Peter is the fairy godfather of nurses,” Hince said. “It made me feel really special. You’re used to seeing celebrities or sports figures receive gifts from companies and brands, so for this stranger to recognize nurses is astounding.”

Jillian Hince w_ gifted designer sunglasses Courtesy of Jillian Hince

Jillian Hince wearing her gifted designer sunglasses.

Courtesy of Jillian Hince

Russell has donated to frontline workers in the majority of states. His home is full of boxes upon boxes of retail items, and every day he’s shipping new merchandise, coordinating with retailers, and dropping off items to nurses and doctors in the Los Angeles area. More than a dozen medical professionals show up at his home each day, too, to pick up donated items.

Peter Russell gifting nurses 2 Courtesy of Peter Russell

Russell with healthcare workers and their care packages.

Courtesy of Peter Russell

“I just want to brighten peoples’ spirits,” Russell said — and that’s what he did for Kahn, the pediatric oncologist out of New York City who says she’s forever grateful for his generosity. 

“When he sent me these jeans, I was like well, when I take off my scrubs, I know what I’m going to wear!” Kahn said. “And you realize we’re not in this alone, and there is something to look forward to.” 

If you’re interested in nominating a nurse or donating to Russell’s effort, he can be found on Instagram @peter_russell

Allison Norlian is a three-time Emmy-nominated journalist with a decade of experience in media. She has covered major national stories such as the aftermath of the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally and President Trump’s travel ban in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two kitties. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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