As part of the “Heros for Heroes” campaign, members of East Windsor, N.J., Local 827 recently delivered 160 lunches to Hackensack Hospital, where Business Agent Tom Kelly’s wife works as a nurse.

Members of East Windsor, N.J., Local 827 recently wrapped up an effort that took them across the state to deliver more than 4,700 submarine-sandwich meals to three veterans’ facilities and dozens of hospitals.

“We’re making sure we say ‘thank you’ to the men and women working long hours caring for COVID-19 patients,” said Local 827 Business Manager Robert Speer.

The idea for the “Heros for Heroes” project sprang from the local’s Hudson unit, which covers around 500 men and women who work for Verizon in three Northern New Jersey counties.

“Our members had still been entering customers’ homes as the disease took hold in our area,” said Business Agent Thomas Kelly. “We negotiated agreements early on to try and protect our members, and we worked with Verizon to limit our members’ exposure.”

Sadly, New Jersey would go on to become one of the places hardest hit in the early days of the novel coronavirus.

“Local hospitals were overwhelmed by it,” said Kelly, and by mid-April, nearly 150 Local 827 members had to be quarantined following exposure to the virus. The dozen or so who were hospitalized after testing positive described their health care facilities as places “with every space filled with patients and every employee gowned up like astronauts.

“They all talked about the fear of the disease,” Kelly said, “and the isolation of not having family or friends with you in what you believed could be your final hours.” But they also noted that every staff member, from physicians to food workers, went out of their way to take care of patients’ medical and emotional needs.

That’s what inspired Heros for Heroes. At first, it was going to be a simple collection among the local’s members to pay for thank-you lunches purchased from local delicatessens and restaurants across New Jersey.

But the idea snowballed after Chief Steward Pat Glover suggested adding a PayPal contribution button to the Local 827 website to make it easier for the 3,500-plus members of the cable television and telephone local across the state – along with their family members and friends – to give whatever they could.

That, with a Heros for Heroes video challenge on Facebook initiated by Chief Steward Andy Newman, brought in over $22,000 for the effort, including a donation from Local 827’s general fund of $1,000 to each of its six business units.

“As essential employees, we can relate to the hardship of working 12- to 15-hour days, as we experienced during the Blizzard of 1996 and Super Storm Sandy in 2012,” Speer said.

Over the course of several weeks from May into June, Local 827 leaders and members bought and delivered meals, driving up to the various locations in vehicles bearing thank-you signs and blowing their horns in appreciation. Often, they were joined by representatives from Verizon and local elected officials.

One of the first deliveries – 160 lunches from Elwood Park’s Taste of Italia – was to Hackensack Hospital on May 28, and for Kelly, this one was personal: his wife is a nurse there. As the pandemic took hold, she was working 12-hour overnight shifts, he said, then coming home to separate herself from the rest of the family as much as possible. She eventually developed COVID-19 symptoms and spent two weeks in near-complete isolation after she tested positive for the disease.

“And then she returned to work,” Kelly said. “She was scared and emotionally drained, but she went. Just like all our hospital workers, she’s a hero.”

At the May 29 drop-off to Bayonne Hospital, Mayor James Davis and Councilwoman Sharon Ashe-Nadrowski helped Local 827 deliver 150 lunches from Pizza Master, while the June 3 delivery of 400 Jersey Mike’s subs to the Paramus Veterans Memorial Home was facilitated by New Jersey AFL-CIO President Charlie Wowkanech. Doug Sullivan, Verizon’s new regional vice president and also a veteran, drove up from his office in Maryland to help distribute the lunches to the staff. The veteran’s home has been particularly hard-hit by COVID-19: By mid-June, it had recorded 292 coronavirus cases and 82 deaths.

In some cases, Local 827 members with a connection to a particular facility would help out with a meal delivery. The June 1 donation of 150 Generations Catering lunches went to Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck with assistance from member Steve Tyndall, who had been nursed back to health there after he had become gravely ill with COVID-19.

This sort of charitable giving is something of a tradition for Local 827. Just days before New Jersey and other states started issuing sheIter-at-home orders to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, Kelly said, the local held a pig roast that raised more than $5,000 for victims of earthquakes in Puerto Rico.

Heros for Heroes was extra special, Speer said, because it gave the members of the local a chance to thank individuals in person – while maintaining a safe distance, of course. “It’s been a great experience for all involved,” he said.