Rhonda Roland Shearer is no stranger to helping others obtain protective equipment in times of disaster and emergency.
Just days after the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001, the New York resident and her daughter, London Allen, showed up to Ground Zero and started the main supply operation to hand out 3M P100s respirator masks and other personal protective equipment to first responders in need.
"The striking narrative was that everybody had everything they needed, but when you actually were at Ground Zero, people didn't have it," Shearer, 66, tells PEOPLE. "So we saw what they needed and went about getting thousands of them."
Nineteen years later, Shearer is back on the frontlines — this time, with her nonprofit initiative, Cut Red Tape 4 Heroes, as they stand outside dozens of New York City hospitals and public housing complexes to hand out PPE kits to every employee that needs them.
Though she tells PEOPLE she had to take out a nearly $1 million loan on her New York home to afford the kits, Shearer is paying it back little by little through her GoFundMe page, which has raised over $465,000 so far.
The page is also where she provides updates on her mission, including an upcoming trip to Florida on Friday. There, she will mark the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by handing out $1.5 million worth of PPE to 100 different hospitals and home health organizations in Miami-Dade County.
"It's an emergency and there's no time," Shearer says. "When you have toxins and infectious diseases, there's a long-term consequence, and that's why we have to fight very hard to make sure that our heroes are protected."
Helping out at Ground Zero wasn't the only tie that Shearer had to Sept. 11. About a year after her husband, Stephen J. Gould, died due to lung cancer unrelated to 9/11, Shearer started dating then-FDNY Chief Ronald "Ronnie" Spadafora.
The couple lived together from 2003 to 2018, when Spadafora died at age 63 from 9/11-related blood cancer.
Then, earlier this year, Shearer learned that her daughter was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, also believed to be contracted from the toxins she was exposed to during the nine-month 9/11 recovery operations.
Despite being sick and undergoing surgery for cancer, Allen, 41, was a driving force in getting Cut Red Tape 4 Heroes off the ground in April, according to her mother.
"After her surgery, she called me up and said, 'Mom, I think we really need to do something,'" Shearer recalls. "At the time, I was helping the fire department and others get PPE, but I hadn't jumped in where I was really buying and accumulating in any significant way."
"When London said that, it really impacted me, especially knowing that she really couldn't be involved because she's more vulnerable to COVID post-surgery," she explains. "It was her urging that inspired me to say, 'All right, that's it. I'm jumping in.'"
Since the start of the crisis, Shearer says she and nearly 50 volunteers have delivered more than 765,000 pieces of PPE to hospital workers, nursing homes, veterans centers and underserved communities, all fighting against COVID-19, which has seen more than 6.3 million cases and 191,094 deaths in the United States, according to The New York Times.
In order to pay for the equipment, Shearer used $800,000 from her home equity line, marking the second time she has taken out a loan that large. She also took out a $1 million loan to assist with the 9/11 PPE efforts and successfully paid it all off.
"I figured I did it once before, so I can do it again," Shearer says. "I'm risking money, and maybe somewhat my health, but these essential workers are risking their lives. They don't hesitate. They go right in, and face the uncertain future."
"If they can live with that uncertainty, then I can live with this because I can solve it in some way," she continues. "I'll work hard to pay off the debt, and thus far, America's helped me to reduce it by $500,000."
Over the last few months, Shearer has also realized how the virus has an eerily similar parallel to the health effects of those who helped in 9/11.
"The first responders at Ground Zero, they were risking their lives, and then the tentacles of that event hit them 20 years later where they're dying by the thousands," she explains. "Now, you're starting to read articles about the long-term consequences of having COVID, so it's just essential that we support these workers."
That, however, has been easier said than done, as Shearer notes some hospitals have denied her team's offer for free PPE kits.
"That's the hurtful part," she shares. "I understand you want to look successful at your job and have a good appearance, but to sacrifice workers in order to achieve that? It's outrageous."
To get around this, Shearer's team found a loophole: standing outside the hospital on a sidewalk, where nurses, doctors, employees and even those same administrative workers who turned her away, waited to receive PPE.
"If there was space, we would show up anyway because if you're on the street, and it's a sidewalk, there's no control the hospital exerts over that space," she explains. "And when you step back, they're not asking for gold, they're asking for paper goods."
"One nurse even wrote to us and said, 'You're the first ones that have come to really thank us for all that we've gone through,'" she recalls. "That, to me, was so powerful."
Ultimately, Shearer hopes her actions will be enough to protect the workers and simultaneously prevent history from repeating itself.
"We're not doing anything political. This is a human effort to provide health and safety equipment," she says. "If we can help calm and make one person feel supported, it's all worth it."
"We need to remember the trauma that these healthcare workers — many with very little pay — are going through, and make sure that they never have to go through this again," she adds.
As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.
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