CARES: How 1st Bergen Aided Thousands of Small Business Owners in Receiving COVID Relief Funds
"I remember when I got the email. It was a Friday. I was sitting in my son’s room watching, I don’t know, some kind of cartoon movie with him. And I got the email and I literally just started crying. And my son’s like, 'What’s wrong?! What’s wrong?!'
No, these are happy tears,” Bergen County small business owner Melanie Torres replied to her son. “These are happy tears.”
(Melanie and her son)
Bergen County & Greater Bergen CARES
It was in response to the financial impact that COVID-19 had on communities across the country that the federal government passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act – resulting in millions of dollars in available funding.
Bergen County, New Jersey used a portion of CARES Act funds to launch the Bergen County CARES Small Business Grant Program, designed to provide financial relief to small businesses negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and to increase overall business confidence during recovery.
“We were in arrears for almost 6 months of rent. And the bills just kept piling on,” said Melanie Torres, owner of Dance on 2 Studios in Fair Lawn, NJ. “I had a lease; the lease was not broken. And I didn’t want to close my school. So, this grant literally gave my business a lifeline. It gave my business the opportunity to ride out this really challenging time.”
In its commitment to ensuring that the Bergen County CARES Small Business Grant Program was fair and reached a varied group of business owners, the County of Bergen enlisted the help of 1st Bergen Federal Credit Union, an affiliate of Greater Bergen Community Action.
(Inside of 1st Bergen Federal Credit Union)
The County chose 1st Bergen Federal Credit Union to manage the Bergen County CARES Small Business Grant Program because its commitment providing low-cost banking services and financial literacy to diverse communities and the unbanked. As importantly, the County recognized that there might be a significant level of case management needed to help owners get through the process, and therefore, the program would also benefit from Greater Bergen’s long experience in case management.
Alison DuBois, Greater Bergen’s Vice President of Financial Assistance, Residential and Energy Services, was put in charge of the program because of her social work background and experience managing programs, which involve direct assistance and hands-on work with clients.
(Alison DuBois, Greater Bergen’s Vice President of Financial Assistance, Residential and Energy Services)
“They weren’t in need of a social worker,” Alison said of the business owners in the program. “But because of COVID and the possibility of losing their business, there was high-anxiety, and they were very stressed – so I used my social work skills to help. At the end of the day, people are people. A person facing homelessness or a business owner facing bankruptcy are people under stress; stress is a great equalizer and Our work with the Bergen County CARES Grant saved thousands of local businesses and preserved jobs.”
1st Bergen encouraged Grant Officers to pay attention to detail, be thorough, and exhibit meaningful, caring customer service.
“If I had any questions, Cindy was just amazing,” Melanie said of her Grant Officer, Cindy Arone. “She answered all of my emails super quickly. I was able to chat with her on the phone if I had any additional questions. And so, I really felt like she was holding my hand throughout this entire process, which was very comforting because as you can imagine, this whole time has been so stressful for everyone.”
(Melanie top left; Cindy bottom; Greater Bergen's Communication Specialist, Kiara, coordinating the meeting, top right)
Because of this tailored case management and customer service for every business owner served, applicants were able to get through any barriers they faced, to meet the requirements, and ultimately receive their grant money.
The program was operating so successfully that what was initially designed to be a two-month $10 million program, became a $54.2 million, five-month initiative that served nearly 3,900 businesses.
“I was so excited because it just kind of lifted such a huge weight that was on our shoulders,” Melanie said of finding out she was approved for the grant. “It was just such a relief. I felt like, okay, I can exhale. And that grant – I’m going to be honest with you – it helped me keep my school open. If it were not for that grant, I don’t know if we would still be open today.”
(Dance on 2 Studios open for business)
1st Bergen approached small business owners the way we do all our clients, like a trusted friend, rooting for their success.
As the designated anti-poverty agency for Bergen County, New Jersey, the County CARES grant program is aligned with Greater Bergen’s mission to reduce poverty in the communities it serves, as small businesses have been proven to alleviate poverty through job creation, money flow throughout the economy, and social capital. In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession, Greater Bergen established 1st Bergen Federal Credit Union to ensure customer-centered banking services for all people.
Let’s take a look at the impact.
Small businesses make up 98.3% of New Jersey businesses, and 50.1% of New Jersey employees are employed by small businesses – they are essential to the economy.
In total, 3,883 businesses were awarded Bergen County CARES Grants. Each business was eligible for up to $20,000.
Community Action Partnerships exist – to bring tangible results and change to communities in order to reduce poverty. As for Greater Bergen Community Action, there’s pride embedded within its longstanding services, and shown in its agility to pivot in any way necessary to address new and urgent issues.
“Community Action Partnership agencies across the country work actively towards a unified mission to reduce poverty in their designated areas – each operating together but separately on targeted issues based on need.
At Greater Bergen Community Action, our mission is to positively impact everyone we encounter and to change lives, one at a time.”
(Melanie Torres and Gabriel Perez in front of their Dance on 2 Studio)