Amidst the news, photos and videos Americans are being bombarded with online and on social media – the long lines at coronavirus testing centers, the desolate streets, the overflowing morgues, the jammed supermarkets and empty shelves, the high prices of basic necessities – there stood one image Wednesday in stark contrast to the others: a teenager on a Los Angeles street, handing out free rolls of toilet paper and paper towels.
Who is the mysterious boy whose face was splashed across media from Los Angeles to New York to England, in white shirt and dark pants, Nike sneakers, facemask and yarmulke, standing near his car on a Hancock Park street, holding rolls of the precious goods in gloved hands and giving them to to complete strangers?
Meet Joey Brecher, a 19-year-old graduate of Mesivta of Greater Los Angeles in Calabasas, who plans on studying in Israel next year, an enterprising boy who at the age of 11 founded a party concession company called Concessioneer, and also works in real-estate and in merchandise closeouts, but during the coronavirus pandemic decided to direct his talents and resources toward helping the needy. And these days, just about everyone, rich and poor, young and old, is in some ways needy.
Joey had started a social-media group Tuesday to coordinate an effort for volunteers to shop for groceries and other necessities for elderly people and others who couldn’t leave their homes at all. That first day alone, the group made 25 complete shopping trips, he told Hamodia in a phone interview Thursday night.
Earlier in the week Joey had gone to a Ralphs’s store – a West Coast supermarket chain – and learned that when they took delivery of toilet paper and paper towels each day, it was gone from the shelves within an hour or two.
“Hearing that so many people were short on these items just broke my heart,”Joey says. “I thought that now would be an amazing opportunity to help people, and I started doing research to try to find suppliers of these items.”
But when he tried calling suppliers, “they were so busy that nobody had the time to talk to me.”
Then a woman on his social-media group mentioned that she had toilet paper and paper towels for sale at a reasonable price, and Joey asked her to sell him the entire inventory: 1,200 rolls of toilet paper and over 400 rolls of paper towels, at a cost of nearly $1,500, paid out of his own pocket.
Joey picked up the items on Tuesday night, stuffing them all into his sedan, and the next morning headed to Labrea Avenue at 3rd street, site of a Ralph’s.
There was a large line outside the store – which was already out of toilet paper and paper towels.
Joey parked and put a sign on his trunk, “ Free toilet paper – one per family,” and began offering the items to passersby … and nobody took, at first.
“Everybody was shocked – they were hesitant to take,” Joey says. “People thought either that I was selling, or that it was some sort of scam. Only after the first person finally took it, other people realized it was okay to take.”
After giving out in front of Ralph’s, Joey turned his car across the street and started distributing to people on line at a Trader Joe’s, and then began handing out to drivers passing by in their cars.
In both places, the scene repeated itself: At first people were hesitant to take, but once the first person accepted, people realized this was no scam, just a kindhearted boy looking to help people in times of crisis.
A few people, he says, made hostile gestures, perhaps not truly realizing what Joey was doing.
“One woman who made this gesture to me then got stuck at a red light. Well, I went over to her and said, ‘I just want you to know that I am giving this out for free to people in need, and she said, ‘I’m sorry, I take that back, that is really nice of you; I thought you were trying to sell it.’”
The overwhelming response was positive, from people appreciative of Joey’s kindness. Several recipients tried offering him money – three people offered $100 each – but Joey refused all, saying, “I’m here to give, not to take.”
“I realized this was becoming a kiddush Hashem [sanctification of G-d’s name],” he says, “and I felt that if I accepted money it would diminish that.”
Joey generally stuck to his “one per family” rule, but did not refuse the requests of some people who said they desperately needed more.
Many recipients snapped photos or videos of Joey after taking his products; professional photographers and local news stations also started walking up to him. Photos and videos went across social media.
As Joey stood wearing mask and gloves, three rolls of toilet paper in each hand and two rolls of paper towels under his left arm, handing out the items to passing motorists, a photographer for the wire service AFP/Getty Images snapped photos of him, and his image shot to outlets across the world.
“I wasn’t interested in getting my face anywhere, but I quickly realized this was going to get online and on local stations,” he says. “But I did not realize how big it would get.”
The woman from the social media-group who had sold him the items saw Joey on the news and told him his actions had touched her heart, and that she wanted to help out however she could.
“She called a factory that was producing these items and doing large contracts with stores, and told them what I had done,” says Joey, “and when I went to the factory Wednesday afternoon to purchase more toilet paper to distribute, they donated a few cases to the cause.”
Since Wednesday, he has received over 100 phone calls, from friends who said they saw him on various media or from media outlets wishing to speak with him. He has not returned any calls, he says, until this reporter’s interview request Thursday.
“I have to get off the phone soon,” he warns. “I still have a few items left and I’m trying to reach out to people who need.”
Joey says, “I just want to keep doing,” but realizes he can’t continue much longer. His funds are limited, especially as he, like many other Americans, is not earning much these days. His site, concessioner.com, hasn’t received any orders lately, as in a locked-down California there are no parties for him to rent his popcorn, cotton candy, and snow cone machines. There are no clients looking at real-estate properties now. The merchandise-closeouts are his one business still going, but day by day more businesses close, and he knows it may be just a matter of time before that, too, shuts down.
“But even when the time comes that I can’t do this anymore,” Joey says, “I hope to inspire other people, during these difficult times, to do what they can to help others.”
Five minutes after he hangs up, Joey texts this reporter.
“Just gave away my last roll,” he says. “But I’m going to drive out and get another shipment. I think I can afford another round.”