After Michelle Brenner was furloughed from her job at a menswear store in Gig Harbor, Wash., because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, she turned to comfort-food therapy.

Brenner, 45, made herself a huge pan of lasagna using her grandmother’s recipe. Then, in a moment of pride after shopping for groceries (including frozen lasagna) for some of her neighbors, she got on her community Facebook page and wrote that frozen, store-bought lasagna could not compare to the real Italian homemade deal.

“Hello favorite friends — I delivered a ton of frozen family-size lasagnas today,” Brenner wrote. “Now, this is not a problem by any means, lol. But you have a die-hard, full Italian lasagna lover living in your town.”

She followed up with an offer:

“If any of you want some fresh homemade, no calorie counting lasagna, please let me know and I will gladly prepare it,” she wrote.

Brenner set aside her $1,200 stimulus check to buy ingredients, and the requests soon began to trickle in.

First a retired neighbor showed up at her house, then an out-of-work friend came for a pan. After that, so many people started showing up, including strangers, that Brenner lost track.

Nearly three months and 1,200 pans later, Brenner is still at it, boiling noodles, cooking ground beef, mixing up tomato sauce and layering mozzarella, ricotta and Parmesan.

About eight hours a day, seven days a week, she helps feed people in her community — from hospital workers and first responders to single parents struggling without paychecks.

Brenner said nothing brings her more contentment while she is out of work than passing along goodness from her kitchen.

“The world as we know it is falling apart, but my two little hands are capable of making a difference,” she said. “I can’t change the world, but I can make lasagna.”

Initially, Brenner set up a pantry in her front yard where people could pick up an assembled lasagna and bake it at home.

But when the requests began multiplying faster than she could restock her refrigerator with ground beef and cheese, the president of the Gig Harbor Sportsman’s Club offered the clubhouse kitchen for her project.

“We saw what a great thing she was doing, and we have this nice commercial kitchen that wasn’t being used because of covid,” said Le Rodenberg, 73, the club’s president.

“She decided to do what she could for the community instead of sit at home,” he said. “I can tell you that she takes extra care with every one of those lasagnas.”

After Brenner used her stimulus check to buy lasagna ingredients for her first 60 giveaways, she decided to start a Facebook fundraiser that quickly netted more than $10,000 — enough for more than 500 pans. Then people began donating what they could — from $1 to $100 — when they picked up their orders.

“When word got out on social media, people from all over the world started donating to my cause,” said Brenner, who is single and moved to Gig Harbor from Port Orchard, Wash., six years ago.

People have contributed more than $22,000 so far, and she said she hopes “to be making lasagna for many months to come.”

For Brenner, who grew up helping her Italian grandmother and aunt in the kitchen, nothing says “I care” like homemade lasagna.

“It’s a pan of love,” said Brenner, who has been living on unemployment assistance since she was furloughed. “A lot of the people I make lasagna for have lost their jobs, and this is my way of saying, ‘I understand and I’m here for you.’ ”

After her job was put on hold, Brenner said, she thought about the homemade spaghetti sauce, meatballs and lasagna that she used to make in her grandmother’s kitchen. Sitting down to a hearty, home-cooked meal always made her feel that all was right with the world.

“My grandmother would never eat in an Italian restaurant — she knew that nothing she could order could compare to what she made by herself,” Brenner said. “Everything had to be fresh — she used her own tomatoes and herbs in her sauce. So I learned from the best.”

When she initially started filling her grocery cart with lasagna ingredients, other shoppers sometimes raised their eyebrows as she was clearing store shelves of lasagna noodles and canned tomatoes, she said.

Then a neighbor dropped off a specially designed T-shirt at her house one day that read, “Lasagna Lady.” The name stuck like wet noodles flung on a wall.

“Now when people see me loading up, they know that I’m not hoarding,” she said. “And when there’s a shortage of something, like ground beef or pasta, all I have to do is put the word out and somebody will find it for me in another county.”

She expects to return to work at some point this summer but said she’ll still make time for lasagna.

“I’ll bet I could continue this for the rest of my life,” she said. “I love creating in the kitchen, but more importantly, I love the people I’ve met.”

The connection to her community and filling their homes with the aroma of garlic and tomato sauce is what keeps her ladling and layering, she said.

“Those warm smells help people to know that somebody cares about them,” Brenner said. “You can be in the most awful place in your life, and then a big plate of lasagna will provide some peace and hope.”

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