Moorestown man recovers from COVID-19, starts fundraiser for Food Bank of South Jersey

Doctor and his family collect ‘haircut’ funds through GoFundMe page.

Photo courtesy of James Sanfilippo. James Sanfilippo and his son, James, pose for a photo with their freshly shaved heads. The family is using haircuts to raise money for the Food Bank of South Jersey.

For two weeks, Dr. James Sanfilippo battled COVID-19. 

Some days his symptoms were mild; other days he gasped for breath.  The experience was a frightening one not just for him but for his family, who watched as Sanfilippo contended with some of the worst symptoms the virus had to offer.

When he emerged on the other side of the disease, Sanfilippo decided he wanted to change the narrative of that time period for his children. He didn’t want them to look back and remember the fear and sadness. 

So Sanfilippo and his family are raising money for the Food Bank of South Jersey. He  encourages locals to take the money they would have spent on a haircut, cut their own hair and donate the funds to the family’s GoFundMe page; all profits will go directly to the food bank. While the initial goal was $5,000, donations have surpassed that, with more than $17,000 to date.

Sanfilippo experienced the first symptoms of COVID-19 on March 10 and was tested the next day. By March 14, he had his results: He tested positive for the virus. His was the first positive case in Burlington County and the first in Moorestown.

His symptoms were mild for about a week: He had a low-grade fever, a bit of a cough and some flu-like symptoms. Then things changed. The next four or five days that followed brought with them a severe cough, excessive fatigue and shortness of breath. 

The rest of Sanfilippo’s family fared better. His wife and daughter had a few days of low-grade fever and his son exhibited mild symptoms. But Sanfilippo struggled.

“I was very fortunate that I never had to go to the hospital, but  I was pretty close to having to go,” he said. “At the worst, I really couldn’t even roll over in bed without getting short of breath. It got pretty significant.” 

The uncertainty of how long the symptoms would last was emotionally taxing, Sanfilippo said. He noted that unlike the flu – where you typically have two or three days of severe symptoms –  COVID-19 could vary day to day. 

“The worst part was frustration and the unknown of when this is going to be done,” Sanfilippo said. 

He considers himself lucky that his primary care physician was aggressive with treatment,  having studied the research coming out of France and getting him the Z-pack (antibiotic) and hydrochloroquine combination many doctors are using to combat the virus. After seven days of severe symptoms, he finally felt like himself again. 

Sanfilippo was out on a walk after his recovery when he noticed a friend in town shaving his son’s head. The friend offered his son a $50 reward for cutting his hair, which Sanfilippo took to mean the father was donating $50 to charity. 

The next day, Sanfilippo looked at his son James’ hair and he decided to follow suit, telling James they’d shave his head and donate the money to the same charity. But when he called his friend, he learned he’d misunderstood and that the $50 was a bribe. But the two agreed, Sanfilippo should follow through and donate the money to a charity. 

Sanfilippo’s daughter was working on a civics project where she interviewed state Sen. Troy Singleton, so the family asked him where the funds could do the most good. Singleton provided a list of local food pantries, and the family decided on the Food Bank of South Jersey. Sanfilippo said the pantry works with four counties, and demand is currently through the roof.

He set up the GoFundMe page and challenged friends and neighbors to get involved. With salons and barber shops closed, it was suggested that participants take the money they might ordinarily spend on a haircut and donate it to the page.

Within a couple of hours, the fund raised a couple thousand dollars, and the fundraising took a competitive turn. Sanfilippo offered to let his children shave his head on Facebook Live if donations reached $5,000. 

Within 24 hours the goal was reached, and Sanfilippo’s family grabbed the clippers. He said it was the first time in weeks they laughed together. 

With so many people feeling the effects of the pandemic, the doctor plans to keep the GoFundMe page open for as long as possible. He wants to continue supporting the food bank and raise as much as he can during a critical time. 

The food bank thanked the Sanfilippos for their support, but the family insists they merely  provided the vehicle for the community at large to give back. Their father said the money will go a long way toward providing for families and kids who relied on their school system and other places for food.

“My only hope for this is that we keep it going,” Sanfilippo said. “There’s a lot of people that need this help and need this food.”

To donate, visit Sanfilippo’s GoFundMe at https://www.gofundme.com/f/haircuts-for-covid19