Thursday, May 06, 2021

Person of the Week

Eileen Unger-Pleines Is Happy to Get You a Vaccine (If You Want)

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Eileen Unger-Pleines has combined her concern for her community and her patience to help hundreds of people, from locals to those she’s never met, successfully get a vaccination. Photo courtesy of Eileen Unger-Pleines

Eileen Unger-Pleines has combined her concern for her community and her patience to help hundreds of people, from locals to those she’s never met, successfully get a vaccination. (Photo courtesy of Eileen Unger-Pleines )

Killingworth resident Eileen Unger-Pleines calls it selfishness, which to many might seem odd. After all, she’s independently volunteered hundreds of hours of her own time over the last three months repeatedly going through the arduous process of signing up for the coronavirus vaccine to help people all over the area get their shot—hardly the behavior of someone who is only thinking about herself.

But to Eileen, “selfish” just means working for the safety and health of her community, doing something that is personally fulfilling. And by that definition, her so-called selfishness has been an incredible boon for both her small-town neighbors and hundreds of others as far away as New York.

“The more people we get vaccinated, the safer everybody will be,” she says. “That’s the selfish part of this. Getting you vaccinated makes me safer.

“There’s nothing nicer than having this much gratitude in your life,” she added. “People get an appointment and they’re so excited and so grateful. And it feels really good on my end.”

This attitude has taken Eileen from a small business owner dedicating a few hours to work with people in her community to part of an organized group of about 20 volunteers who leverage their knowledge of the system and local connections to get anyone who wants a vaccine set up for an appointment.

It’s a role that many civic-minded people have stepped into across the country, plugging the gaps in the massively complex, sometimes opaque vaccine distribution process. But it also takes time, energy, and a special personality willing to reach out and offer patience and support to neighbors who often desperately need someone to rely on.

“I don’t know if it’s me personally or what’s coming out of my mouth and the way that I say it—honestly I think it’s a miracle,” she says. “Every time we get an appointment and somebody gets vaccinated, it feels like a miracle.”

The passion Eileen clearly embodies, and the empathy on display as she talks about her work grew out of something incredibly frightening and nearly tragic. Her mother contracted the virus very early on in the pandemic, and Eileen was unable to be at her side as she battled for her life.

“Going through that experience of someone that you love on a respirator, in a hospital 1,000 miles and you can’t do anything—you can’t go, you can’t be there, you can’t be involved—was horrible,” she says. “That really made this so incredibly important to me. I did not want to see anyone I cared about that ill ever again.”

Here in Killingworth, Eileen has a wide web of connections and friendships through her baking business—with people often referring to her affectionately as simply “The Bread Girl,” which is the name of her business—and also through her husband, who works for the town.

When, back in the winter, Connecticut residents were first given access to the vaccine, Eileen says she simply saw “an opportunity to get life back together.”

Starting with social media and direct interactions with older folks who were eligible early in 2021 for the vaccine, Eileen says she became aware the process was difficult or confusing for many people.

“I helped out...and was able to be helpful and of value and I was very happy to see these people who were really in a position where they needed to be the first in line [get the vaccine],” she says. “So that was really nice.”

Even after that experience, though, Eileen says signing herself up for an appointment a few weeks later took some effort and time. After hearing on the news about a Facebook group for people who wanted to help others set up vaccine appointments, she started to dedicate more time and energy to the cause.

Through the group, she met other like-minded, passionate volunteers who formed their own small band of about 20, whose sole purpose was to make sure as many people who wanted the vaccine got it as soon as possible.

“We have people who request help and we do it in order of priority—age, comorbidity, job—whatever is going to put people in the most danger,” Eileen says. “And we work together using all the different websites...to find appointments that fit into their niche.”

Assisting anyone from New York and Connecticut, Eileen says her little group is not made up of experts, and have no secret connections or insights into the system. They are just people who want their communities to be safe and are willing to dedicate their time and energy to make that happen.

“My thing was that I live here. This is where my customers are, this is where my friends are,” she says. “I really wanted to know that where I live, people around me are safe.”

From the local angle, Eileen is really the ideal person for the job. She is connected with a huge number of people in the area across a range of demographics, and is a known and friendly face to her neighbors.

“I’ve gotten everything,” she says. “The local restaurant owners, who want to make sure they’re covered. And once they get an appointment and know that I can get them one, everyone in their restaurant who works for them, I get those phone calls.”

“It runs the gamut; it has been every one of every kind of position,” she added.

As some have struggled with the online scheduling system, others simply need some encouragement or a friendly or trusted voice, according to Eileen. Those “vaccine hesitant” people have been a focus of public health experts, with no clear solution on how to listen and speak to people who have concerns, or who are victims of misinformation.

Eileen says those people have been successfully reached numerous times by her and the other members of the group. She says she didn’t have any secret method, except to be someone with experience and knowledge.

“I’ve gotten hundreds of people vaccinated, and it’s anecdotal but I’ve seen it, so I can kind of combat that hesitancy,” she says.

As of this week, around 25 percent of the Connecticut adult population had been fully vaccinated. Eileen lauded the overall response both locally and state-wide in trying to distribute the vaccine despite some of the difficulties in the online system, and called her experience with the vaccine-helpers group “wonderful.”

But she added that personally, she couldn’t wait for things to get back to normal, to be able to have face-to-face interactions with her beloved customers and friends, with some kind of end to the virus that has taken so many lives.

“This is a very small town,” she says. “I ran my business through the entire pandemic with no-contact pickup. I hate that. I hated that I could not have people in, that I could not go out and spend time with people. I have so many customers that I feel like I know really well that I’ve never seen.”

Eileen urged anyone who still had questions or needed help getting an appointment to reach out to her directly by phone at 561-389-6861 or email at eileen@thebreadgirl.biz.


Jesse Williams covers Guilford and Madison for Zip06. Email Jesse at j.williams@shorepublishing.com.

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