Hector Vargas, photo by Aaron Morrill

There are many unsung heroes on the front lines battling the Covid-19 pandemic in Jersey City and the rest of Hudson County. Much has been written about the emergency medical technicians and paramedics who together with doctors, nurses and healthcare staffers have been risking their lives on a daily basis to battle the coronavirus. But there’s another line of defense laboring mostly in civilian garb out of the limelight, providing equally valuable public service as paid staff and volunteers.

Hundreds of these valiant men and women are part of the Hudson County Community Networking Association. Like all CNAs, the Hudson County CNA connects local community leaders and social service professionals so they can share — and thereby leverage — ideas, information and resources to produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Hudson County CNA team leaders met monthly; now all that’s changed.

“Since Covid-19, the networking association has streamed three meetings on Facebook for members to share up-to-date information,” said Steve Campos, a leader of the association. (Campos’ day job is community resource director for Hudson Partnership Care Management Organization, which provides care for children in Hudson County who face mental health challenges.) “Day-to-day, the networking association also communicates via a private Google group. There, all types of social service and community assistance are provided.”

Jersey City Together is one such service provider. A virtual trove of unsung heroes. Led by teacher-turned-organizer Frank McMillan, JCT is a coalition primarily of interfaith religious institutions throughout the city that tackles issues involving affordable housing, public education, public safety and criminal justice — with a united voice.

“We are listening to points of pain from our communities of faith,” McMillan said. “We try to help them in responding to crises.”

In response to Covid-19, faith leaders from Jersey City Together have written to local apartment building landlords urging them to comply with Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order on rent forgiveness (under which renters can ask landlords to apply their security deposits toward rent that they are behind on or that they foresee having  difficulty paying in the future.)

Jersey City Together members have also been advocating for added health protections for inmates and corrections officers in the state’s jails and prisons, in particular for coronavirus testing.

Lenny Martinez and Frank Gilmore are two other arrows in Campos’s quiver. Both men help kids deemed “at risk” and their family members deal with the stress of home life during the pandemic.

Lenny Martinez is a resource development specialist with the state’s Children’s Protective Services. He talks directly to caseworkers and to staff within the juvenile justice system to help youths negotiate disruptive family situations or the maze of available support programs;

Frank “Educational” Gilmore, photo by Aaron Morrill
Frank “Educational” Gilmore, photo by Aaron Morrill

Frank Gilmore is a city recreation aide and coach by day. By night (and weekends), he runs the Educational Gilmore Community Learning Center in Greenville, where he helps steer kids away from drugs and alcohol and where kids can go for tutoring or to just relax. Gilmore founded the center in 2018 after his own remarkable comeback from a life of crime on the streets.

There’s more.

HOPES Community Action Partnership is full of unsung heroes. Founded in the mid 1960s as the Hoboken Organization against Poverty and Economic Stress, HOPES CAP runs a plethora of anti-poverty programs for area residents. Since the state’s stay-at-home directive was issued in March, it has focused on education, health, and hunger, according to Evelyn Mercado, HOPES CAP director of community programs. For instance, staff helps ensure youngsters in low-income households get plugged into online classes so they can keep up with their schoolwork; they have provided isolated senior citizens with access to an assortment of online enrichment programs, buoying their spirits and helping them feel less lonely. (The group has identified close to 200 elderly clients in Hudson County including 40 in Jersey City who do not own computers.)

HOPES CAP also managed to rustle up masks and gloves for its more vulnerable clients and deliver food to coronavirus sufferers unable to leave their homes. Two clients in particular, a breast cancer survivor and her husband come to Mercado’s mind. The convalescing woman was dependent on her husband, but he had been deemed an “essential worker” and therefore was unavailable to care of her during the day. The two were struggling to cope — but thanks to a cash donation made by a retired city employee, HOPES CAP was able to arrange for weekly grocery deliveries to the couple.

“I end up crying three times every day,” Mercado said. “I’m constantly worried about our clients.

Since April 2019, Jersey City Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, with help from her husband Anthony, has operated a food pantry in Greenville, part of AngelaCares, the nonprofit organization McKnight founded in 2011 to provide an array of social services to senior citizens.

Recently, the pantry served approximately 150 residents in one week, up from 80 to 100 per week before the pandemic began. Volunteers staff the pantry at 696 Ocean Ave., off Carteret Avenue, on Fridays. Each senior typically gets a packet of canned goods, produce, rice, macaroni, spaghetti and an array of non-perishables.

“We start at 2 p.m. and stay open until the food runs out,” McKnight said. “Over the past month, the need has increased since families are spending more time at home.”

Also keeping McKnight busy during April was a month-long emergency fundraiser sponsored by Angela Cares, which netted  $50,000 for the pantry. That bought groceries and personal protective equipment (such as masks) to about 2,500 senior citizens, McKnight added.

Hector Vargas offering a meal he’d made to homeless individual, courtesy Hector Vargas’s Facebook page
Hector Vargas offering a meal he’d made to homeless individual, courtesy Hector Vargas’s Facebook page

But another unheralded Greenville resident who perhaps epitomizes heroism is Hector Vargas, a Marine Corps veteran who, until the health crisis, had been working as a census-taker while searching for more permanent employment.

As the pandemic lingered Vargas made it his personal mission to befriend and feed the homeless and other folks in need. He’d prepare several meals at home, pack them in plastic bags and balance them from the handlebars of his bicycle, then  pedal up and down the city’s north-south routes as far south as Bayonne and as far north as Union City giving the meals out. At times, friends chipped in cash to help pay for the food.

“I saw a lot of people in wheelchairs living on the street,” Vargas said.

Councilman-at-large Daniel Rivera, who has worked alongside Vargas distributing food to the homeless in Journal Square and in city-sponsored cleanup projects, said: “Hector was one of the few people out here extending himself from the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis.”

“He’s a two-time Afghani-Iraq veteran who has dedicated himself to his community,’’ said Rivera, also a military service veteran.

It appears that Vargas has alienated some of his neighbors who contributed to his efforts.  In text messages to JCT, some questioned his sincerity and temperament.

Councilman Rivera, however, chalks it up to style.  “He can be rough around the edges and very outspoken but his heart is genuine.”

Unfortunately, Vargas himself now faces a setback. His bike, a gray and black 15-gear Schwinn 27.5, was stolen April 28 —  and he’d had it only three months. “I was helping a woman carry some boxes into the West Side post office, and when I came out, my bike was gone,” he recounted.

Now might be the time for our readers to come to Vargas’ aid.

For more on Covid-19-related volunteer opportunities, check out Volunteer Jersey City,  Jersey Cares, and NJ.gov.

For more information on the impact of the coronavirus on Jersey City, please see Jersey City Times’ news section.

Header: Hector Vargas, photo by Aaron Morrill

This article was updated on May 27, 2020

Ron Leir has been a journalist since 1972. That includes a 37-year stint as a reporter, copy reader and assistant editor with The Jersey Journal, followed by a decade as a reporter with The Observer in...

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