Writing this story has been quite a journey. What started as a cheerful blog post about baking at home turned into an inspirational story of two close friends, Sandra and Natalie, and their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sandra Prosper is an actor, model, and entrepreneur. Smart, beautiful and impossibly chic, she’s also a good friend. Natalie Raitano is a celebrity fitness expert and actor, best known for her role as Nicole “Nikki” Franco on the television series V.I.P. with Pamela Anderson and Molly Culver.
In these times of sheltering in place and social distancing, I’ve noticed a huge baking trend. It’s mid-May 2020, two months since many schools and offices in the United States closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some states are gradually reopening, but most non-essential activity is still on hold for most American families. When I scroll through my social media feed, friends are proudly posting photos of their homemade bread. Yeast rolls, banana bread, and beautifully braided challah are everywhere.
When I launched this blog in April, Sandra was kind enough to send to send me an Orange Bundt Cake as a congratulatory gift. We’ve known each other for over twenty years, and developed a comradery over our shared experiences in the entertainment industry and in catering and events. Sandra’s Los Angeles based company, Sandra’s Soups & Sweets, offers delicious savory soups and scrumptious homemade baked goods including cakes, pies, cookies, and bread loaves. For years, I’ve loved to order her beautifully packaged treats as thank you gifts. When I called to thank her for the cake, it was a great opportunity to play catch up and talk about the news of the day in California and Georgia.
I asked Sandra for her observations on the current baking trend. “My family comes from the Haitian culture. We have that French influence and appreciation for food. We love to cook. We love to prepare things for other people. This pandemic has forced families to face one another, take care of one another, bring people together. People enjoy baking in different ways. Some like to participate, some like to sit in the kitchen and watch, and others just like to partake. People are hungry for comfort.”
Sandra continues, “I live alone, and I find a lot of solace in baking. Baking is the ultimate act of love because this has been such an isolating period. I bake every Sunday. I might try a new recipe or an oldie but goodie. The neighbors in my building pass by my door and text me as a signal that they want to partake in what I’m making. They just don’t like asking. Consequently, I never end up eating what I make alone. I always package it for my neighbors, and leave it for them to pick up at my door. So, even though I live alone, I get to feel a part of a community by sharing with my neighbors. My baking becomes a conversation piece, a community thing.”
Sandra then shares a remarkable story directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I just sent two special care packages to two COVID-19 survivors- the parents of a friend. Natalie is a close friend- like a sister. She lives in L.A. but traveled to Pennsylvania to check on her elderly parents who weren’t feeling well. Late February/early March in Pennsylvania is cold and isolated like Siberia. Natalie couldn’t leave her parents’ home. Friends and neighbors would leave packages at the end of their driveway. Her only lifeline was texts and prayers from friends.”
“Natalie’s Dad got sick and had to be hospitalized for several days. Her mother descended quickly after that and had to be hospitalized for five weeks. Natalie fed, bathed, and clothed her father and eventually fell ill herself due to lack of sleep. Fortunately, she didn’t catch the virus from her parents. I did my best to support her with constant calls and texts. My parents are deceased, but I was very active in caring for them during their later years. I have a real reverence for the elderly. Natalie is a well-known fitness trainer, and had recently run a marathon. We would talk about how her level of endurance and strength from training for the marathon had enabled her to survive such a difficult time.”
I was inspired by the story of Natalie and her parents, and Sandra offered to connect me with her. Like her television character, Nikki, Natalie exudes superhero energy- even over the phone. She’s strong and outspoken, but also disarming with her warmth, openness and humility. My initial call was meant to be a simple hello and a confirmation that she was comfortable with sharing her personal story. It turned out to be so much more, and I came away with many valuable insights.
Natalie tells me about her family and her journey caring for her parents while they suffered with- and eventually recovered from- COVID-19. “We’re a strong Italian family. People say that my Dad is like Joe Pesci from Goodfellas without killing anyone. We’re opinionated, strong, short people. I’m from Charleroi, Pennsylvania, a small town about 45 minutes south of Pittsburgh.”
Natalie tells me about the onset of her parents’ illness. “It was such a surprise. It definitely wasn’t what I was expecting when I went to visit my parents on March 17th. I was in L.A. My family has a house in Vail, Colorado. Dad was there, and we all planned to meet in Pennsylvania. Dad’s driver tested positive for COVID-19, and one day later, everyone was sick. Dad is 82 years old. He was sent home from the hospital because the virus wasn’t in his lungs, and he was in good health. He had quintuple bypass surgery and had recovered so well that he had recently been skiing in Vail. Now he was sick as a dog. I had to do everything for him. He needed such constant care that I slept on the floor near his bed just to make sure he was okay. Mom is 80. The virus got into her lungs. We weren’t allowed to go in the ambulance with her. She was hospitalized for over a month. I prayed every night and begged God not to let her die in the hospital. She’s such a good person, and I just didn’t want her to die alone.”
It's an emotional conversation. Natalie pauses for a minute and says, “I wasn’t planning on that, but you just step up. There’s always a silver lining, always a lesson, always a takeaway. I ask her if she would be willing to share her three biggest lessons.
Lesson 1: Faith
“It took my faith to another level. The energy of all of the prayers going out for me, my mom, my family members, really carried us through everything. As sick as my dad was, one day I told him, ‘You need to fight.’ He asked the family to get together and talk about what we would do if Mom died. I wouldn’t even consider it. I told him, ‘We’re not going to focus on “what if,” we’re going to focus on “what is.” She is going to make it. If the worst happens, we’ll deal with it then.”
Lesson 2: Togetherness
“This time brought our family close. The whole family came together and fought. My brother lives around the corner from my parents. He couldn’t risk getting his wife and family sick, so he became our support system for all of the errands, shopping, and any supplies we needed. I have a sister with Down syndrome. She lives with my parents and got sick too- not to the same extent my parents did- but she was scared. There were times when I was thinking, ‘Is this going to wipe my whole family out? Is this the end?’”
We have an amazing community. Friends from high school brought food every day. Neighbors dropped off masks, gloves, throws. So many people sent things from L.A.
Lesson 3: Perspective
“This is an historic moment. I’ve lived through Rodney King and September 11. I’ve never lived through something like this. Even the worst people in the world have had to sit down. We’re not in control. God is in control. If you think of the environment as a being, look how bad Mother Earth gets treated. At some point she fights back.”
“I ran a full marathon after Christmas. I’ve had no drinking for 4 ½ months. It really kept my immune system strong and it prepared me for everything I went though. When you run a marathon, there are always people with signs along the way. There was one that said, ‘Remember, you paid to do this.’ I would always remember that. Dad, my sister and I all have antibodies. We’re waiting to hear about Mom. She didn’t go on a ventilator, but she’s still on oxygen and a walker.” Then with a little laugh, Natalie says, “They’re arguing over politics this morning, so I guess they’re okay.”
Sandra made a beautiful gift box full of baked goods to celebrate Natalie’s parents’ recovery. She’s also been inspired to share with others. She’s asked her Instagram followers to direct message her if they know an elderly person who could use some cheer after recovering from COVID-19, and they may be selected to also receive a special gift box. “If you can survive this you deserve a feast- a big banquet. I’m so happy to give whatever I have to someone like that.”
To follow Sandra's Soups and Sweets on Instagram, click HERE.
To follow Natalie Raitano on Instagram, click HERE.