MILLBURN, NJ — A local charity group that works as part of a network of 70 loosely-affiliated groups across the country is looking to help out both local first responders here in Millburn, and hospital workers in Essex County.

Front-Line Appreciation Group (FLAG) of Millburn/Short Hills Director Shannon Cross spoke with TAPinto Millburn/Short Hills, and among other topics, discussed the work her group is doing during this pandemic, and how the efforts have been felt in the community.

Cross said she was inspired to start her Millburn/Short Hills chapter after seeing other FLAG chapters pop up nearby in towns like Summit and Chatham.

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“The idea was basically to go out to the community, raise money, take the money back into the local restaurants and stores, and purchase food and other products that it’s possible to purchase at this point in time," Cross said. "But mainly on the restaurant side, food to feed both our first responders as well as local hospitals.”

At the time of the interview, it had been two weeks since the charity had started. Cross made sure to mention that it was very much a grassroots effort, with an outpouring of support from the community, including restaurants town. She said receiving appreciation back from first responders and medical workers is incredibly heartwarming.

Since its inception, FLAG of Millburn/Short Hills has raised about $30,000 dollars, most of which has gone back into providing meals for the township's first responders and hospitals around the area. Cross is the only full-time organizer/spearheader, with a few volunteers on staff.

Since the Summit FLAG group is working with Overlook, and the Millburn Chamber of Commerce is partnered with organizations in Livingston to help St. Barnabas, the group turned its attention to helping other under-served hospitals in communities around the county

“Because this grew so quickly, we’re kind of putting in place operations right now in a database, to be able to track […]  all the donations that came in and then all of the payments that are going to the hospitals, and then I’m working on the scheduling.”

The hospitals in the list of those served by the Millburn/Short Hills FLAG group include the VA Hospital in East Orange, University Hospital in Newark, Mountainside Hospital in Montclair, Clara Maass, in Belleville, Union Emergency Dept., which is part of Atlantic health, Kessler Institute, as well as additional care for Overlook.

Along with the mission of serving food to those working in hospitals another goal of FLAG is keeping restaurants in Millburn open. To that point, FLAG works to make sure cash comes back into community as fast as possible, including pre-paying restaurants before the delivery of meals.

For Cross, the mission to help on both fronts is exhaustive, but one she said has shown her the amount of appreciation that workers in the hospitals feel for the donations of food.

“When I was at University the other day, they had a couple of deaths of the staff that day, and morale was really low," Cross said. "When I talked to somebody at the VA hospital to tell them that we were going to start delivering food to their group, they started crying.”

Cross added that workers are stretched thin, stressed and seeing incredibly ill patients, so to bring them food is like giving them a virtual hug and support.

She also noted that the support she has seen from Millburn Township residents is incredible and has allowed her to continue her mission.

“Millburn/Short Hills is a special community, in terms of the people who are here," Cross said. "But to some extent sometimes people are so busy working and focused on their own things that you don’t necessarily feel the level of community involvement that I have in the last two weeks.

"It’s been very heartwarming to see people who step up, and they say, ‘I want to help out, and I want to donate and how can I do this.’ People were trying to send me checks before I had a checking account. I get emails all the time about how I can help out.”

Anyone wishing to donate to FLAG and help with their efforts can do so by Venmo: @flagofmsh or PayPal: donations@flagmsh.org. Checks can also be made out to FLAG of Millburn/Short Hills at 15 Twin Oak Rd., Short Hills, NJ 07078.