As the coronavirus has swept across New Jersey, businesses, charitable groups and volunteers from all walks of life have battled back with acts of kindness and generosity. They’ve made masks, raised funds, provided meals for those in need and gone out of their way to show support for heroic medical personnel and first responders. Here are some stories of caring and kindness from around the state.
MAKING MASKS FOR VETERANS, POLICE OFFICERS & MORE
Brett D’Alessandro, a former U.S. Marine sergeant, and his girlfriend, Alexa Modero, have been operating the Verona-based non-profit Backpacks for Life since 2014. The company distributes its signature American-made product, the Bowery Pack, to homeless veterans. The backpack includes a locking cable, collapsible sleep pad, rain poncho, blanket, toiletries and emergency supplies.
But when Covid-19 hit, D’Alessandro and Modero did an about face. They began making masks.
“We developed great contacts in the U.S. textile industry through the manufacturing of our backpacks, and we knew we had the ability to help,” says D’Alessandro. “It was a two-week process of learning the materials and how to make effective masks at the lowest cost possible, and then we were on our way.”
The masks, which were fast-tracked for FDA-approval, are manufactured at United States Manufacturing Company (USMC) in Passaic, a cut-and-sew factory owned by Mario and Domenick Monaco, who are also former Marines. The masks consist of three layers of nonwoven polypropylene, which is water repellent, breathable and has a bacteria filtration efficacy of 95 percent.
D’Alessandro raised $45,000 through grants and a GoFundMe campaign in April, and has already produced and distributed 7,234 masks to veteran’s associations, VA hospitals, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, police and fire departments and small municipalities. They will continue to raise money to achieve their goal of giving out 150,000 masks.
“We make no profit whatsoever,” says D’Alessandro. “We just want to get the masks into the hands of groups who have a need and can’t otherwise afford them.” —Lindsay Berra
FEEDING FIRST RESPONDERS
The day after George’s Place in Cape May went from being a dine-in to a takeout-and-delivery restaurant, a nurse walked in with a $100 gift card to donate food to fellow nurses at Cape Regional Medical Center. George Brannon, a partner in the company who was there that day, proposed an alternate plan along the lines of, “Let us pay for the order; we’ll double it and we’ll deliver.”
Donating food to first responders is now standard practice during the pandemic at four of the company’s restaurants—George’s Place in Cape May and Cape May Courthouse, The YB and Scola. Kitchen staff at each prep, cook, wrap, box and deliver food to organizations at least once weekly. Recent drop-offs have been to the ER, ICU, and dietician and housekeeping units at the hospital, Cape May Fire Department, and the Cape May and Middle Township police departments.
“It’s been a blessing,” says Cape May fire chief Alex Coulter, who explained that firefighters work 24-hour shifts. “With this virus, they can’t exactly run out to Wawa.” —Lynn Martenstein
PLANTING SEEDS OF HOPE
Suzanne Craig has always been philanthropic, so when Covid-19 hit, she instantly looked for a way to help others. “I asked my neighbor if she knew of a food bank,” says Craig, a Bay Head resident. “Once I got one, I contacted a graphic designer I know to have a flyer made,” she adds. “Then I shared it all.”
The result was a grassroots push to support Seeds of Service (SOS), an organization that regularly provides food, clothing and other outreach services to Ocean County residents. Craig posted the flyer on social media—“it was shared 29 times, and 28 of those were strangers,” she says—and also passed it along to her aunt, who shared it with her church’s rosary society. The result: an outpouring of donations.
“We were in desperate mode,” says SOS’s director Christie Winters. “Within two hours, they got us through. The immediate donations sustained us.”
Winters explains that SOS runs 28 various outreach programs but its most critical is food-related. “We function as a grocery store, providing food to 500 area families in need every month,” says Winters. With Covid-19, the need grew. “Our number is up to 720 families each month,” she says.
Since social-distancing restrictions have prevented residents from going to the facility to select their food, a small army of volunteers took over, hand-delivering provisions to the families. “We are delivering six to seven bags, about two weeks’ worth, to our families,” Winters says.
The daily pace at SOS is astounding. “Other area pantries had to shut down,” Winters says, “but not us.” SOS was able to get a state grant, but it’s the donations of local residents that keep its pantry stocked and running. “It’s so beautiful how it all went down,” says Winters. “We’re too blessed to be stressed.” —Lauren Payne
SHOWING SUPPORT FOR HOSPITAL STAFF
A simple but spirited gesture of support hangs on display in the top-story windows of Virtua Voorhees Hospital. The sign—hand-lettered in a rainbow of colors—reads: “Respiratory Rocks.”
“[We] wanted to show appreciation for the staff and to encourage them,” says Tiara Halstead, an equipment service technician at the hospital. “It has been a stressful time for all employees.”
Halstead and her mother, Christina Halstead, who works in the respiratory department, were inspired by other acts of support on display at the hospital. Another sign, hung by the hospital’s NICU units opposite the Intensive Care area, reads: “Just Keep Swimming ICU.” Workers have also hung up drawings and coloring pages for children to decorate.
The coronavirus ordeal has brought coworkers closer together, says Halstead. “I think there’s been a shift in solidarity. People are checking to see how others are doing and how each other’s days are, more than usual.” —Royal Thomas II
SURF BRAND BOOSTS FELLOW RETAILERS
Jetty, a clothing brand popular with the surfing set, believes in the power of community. “It’s in the DNA of the brand,” says Joe Hodnicki, marketing director for the Manahawkin-based brand. “We’ve always done really well identifying a problem, then rallying the troops.”
Seeking to address the Covid-19 shutdown, the New Jersey–based company developed the Rising Tides Initiative to support its retail outlets nationwide. “We’re sitting on massive amounts of inventory,” says Hodnicki. “The big impact was [felt by] our retailers.”
For the program, Jetty designed a new line of T-shirts and hoodie sweatshirts, available for purchase on its website, jettylife.com. Net proceeds are going to the purchaser’s retailer of choice. “You pick the shop at checkout, and 100 percent of profits goes to that shop,” says Hodnicki. This helps mom-and-pop surf shops across the country—and enables Jetty to keep producing.
“Jetty’s manufacturing is not shut down in New Jersey,” says Hodnicki. “We’re able to hire back our internal team and put them to work.”
In addition to the Rising Tides merchandise, “10 percent of all profits of everything sold online goes back to the shop in your zip code,” says Hodnicki. “These retailers have propped us up, so we’re just doing what’s fair,” he says. “They need to keep the lights on.” —LP
Zsa Zsa Stackles is deeply concerned about keeping her shop, ReFind, alive. That didn’t stop her, however, from reaching out and helping others first. Stackles’s shop in Bay Head features creations by local artists and craftspeople, from original paintings and photographs to refinished furniture. Stackles also runs a brisk business holding art classes. When Covid-19 hit, “I had to move or cancel 20 to 30 different art classes,” she says. Yet, even while facing financial stress, Stackles launched a charity art auction, with all proceeds going to a group of 65 nurses “on the frontline” at Jersey Shore University Medical Center.
“I know a nurse online, through Facebook,” says Stackles. “I reached out to her and said, ‘What do you need?’” Stackles then contacted 17 artists whose work she sells and asked each to offer a piece of art at a discount. The results surprised her. “These are artists who make their living selling art,” she says, “and they all offered their work at 100 percent.”
The artworks were hung in the shop window and posted on social media, with the goal of raising $4,000. By the end of April, all 17 works were sold.
What will Stackles eventually gift to the nurses? “I was told that food is wonderful but it’s overabundant. Instead, they want something that makes them smile, something they can take home,” she says. To that end, she reached out to a local nursery to purchase flowering plants for each of the 65 nurses—she calls them her “RN angels.” Stackles also found a friend to knit 65 tiny pouches. Inside each pouch? A healing stone.
“I don’t know how I’m going to pay my rent,” says Stackles. “But I believe in my heart that it will come back to me. I just want to help.” —LP