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With his wife Amy, some key helpers, and an army of volunteers, Bob Stefanowski successfully led Masks for Heroes and Masks for CT, twin programs that procured and distributed 1.2 million masks for health care professionals, essential workers, and anyone in Connecticut who needed them. (Photo courtesy of Bob Stefanowski )
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Robert Stefanowski—or Bob, as he’s known to everyone—is not the kind of person who waits for someone else to act when there’s a need. When he sees a problem, he takes it upon himself to find a solution.
So, upon learning in March that health care professionals and essential workers in Connecticut were in dire need of personal protective equipment (PPE), he and his wife, Amy, knew they had to act.
“Amy and I realized the heartbreaking need for PPEs by our hospitals and first responders. Nurses were using disposable face masks multiple times, putting them in a brown paper bag with their name on them each night and reusing them the next day. Nursing and assisted-care facilities often had no masks despite having to deal with infected patients. Police, fire, EMTs—all needed them. And the state was unable to procure them,” Bob says.
He found a broker in New Jersey who had disposable surgical masks, then drove with a friend, Pat Sasser, to procure some.
“We inspected them, checked with a hospital to make sure they were FDA-approved, wired the money that day, and brought 100,000 masks back,” he says.
But if he and Amy thought that was the end of the problem, they were in for a surprise.
“We thought they would last weeks,” he says. “They lasted one day. So, we kept going back.”
In the early days of the effort, the couple relied on the help of State Representative Vincent Candelora (R-86), some members of the Connecticut General Assembly, and an army of volunteers who helped them widen their reach to the entire state.
“Amy was in charge of allocating the masks, while I was in charge of sourcing them. We kept them in our garage and used our network to distribute them every day,” Bob explains.
For her part, Amy provides an insight on the distribution side.
“Over a few short weeks, we built a network of over 100 volunteers across every corner of the state to ensure a 24- to 48-hour distribution of these vitally needed masks to the hospitals, first responders, social service organizations, and nursing homes who urgently needed them. Requests would come in from across the state, and we would make sure we could fulfill the needs as quickly as possible,” she says.
Because the need for masks was huge, Bob and Amy knew they had to maintain their efforts. Some early contributions from private donors kept them going. Then, they teamed up with the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven, and CEO Judy Alperin created the charitable organization Masks for Heroes.
That’s when it really took off.
Masks for Heroes is indeed a clever name—not to conjure the image of superheroes wanting to conceal their faces but to send the message that everyday heroes need to protect theirs from an invisible enemy.
But the masks were in high demand everywhere and in the end, they were distributed to anyone who needed them, whether they were in the frontlines or not.
Thus began Masks for CT, an arm of Masks for Heroes, to distribute the protective face coverings to the general public. Both efforts are conducted in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven.
“Once Masks for Heroes had the first responders’ needs under control, we knew that the community—now ready to venture back out to work—needed a way to get masks. That was when Masks for CT and our drive-up events began. In conjunction with Scot Haney and WFSB, we hosted over 15 drive-up events and gave away masks statewide,” Amy says.
“Seeing the lines of people at every event waiting for hours for a baggie with five masks was both heartbreaking and heartwarming.”
Bob, too, remembers how Connecticut residents were in desperate need of masks.
“One telling moment was when a middle-age woman with leukemia drove up to a mask giveaway [event]. She was high-risk for COVID-19 and had been wearing the same mask for days. We were more than happy to give her a fresh supply,” he says.
Even when the work was both exhausting and daunting, the couple persevered in acquiring and disseminating the masks.
“At one point during the height of the pandemic, the daily list of requests we would receive from the nursing homes and assisted-living facilities statewide was so long, it would take me four hours every morning to organize the requests and communicate with our volunteers to let them know where they were headed for the day,” Amy recalls.
“We knew our work was done and the needs were met when our final lists came in with less than 10 names on it. That was the day I cried, knowing this work had made a difference,” she adds.
In total, Masks for Heroes handed out a staggering 1.2 million masks in 160 of the 169 towns and cities in Connecticut. Major distribution events were held in Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury, Bridgeport, Enfield, Torrington, and a number of other towns.
“We are now handling requests for summer camps, Special Olympics, and others, and we will keep going,” Bob says.
For more information about their work to provide masks in Connecticut, visit jewishnewhaven.org/masksforheroes or facebook.com/MasksForHeroesCT.
Leader, Husband, and Father
Masks for Heroes is the type of charity that allows Bob to make use of his financial and leadership abilities.
He completed his B.S. in accounting from Fairfield University and his MBA from Cornell University. He is a fellow at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. In addition, he has served as an adjunct faculty at New York University Stern School of Business, the London Business School, and Cambridge University with research focus on corporate finance, leadership, and private equity. He is also a professor of management practice at Oxford University in London.
Aside from finance, Bob is interested in leadership as a skill. To him, it is an ability that can be learned, honed, and taught.
“I enjoy leading during a time of change—at work and personally. As well as being a student, I have taught leadership at Oxford and Cambridge Universities when we lived in the United Kingdom,” Bob says.
He previously held leadership positions in companies that included CEO of General Electric Corporate Finance for Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) and CFO at UBS Investment Bank.
He was a past participant in the Financial Services Industry Partnership at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He has authored two books, Making M&A Deals Happen, published in February 2007 and Material Adverse Change, published in September 2017.
In 2018, he successfully primaried to be the Republican candidate for governor of the State of Connecticut. He lost the general election to Democratic Governor Ned Lamont.
Bob and Amy have been married for 30 years and have three daughters: Lauren, 25; Rachel, 21; and Megan, 17. The family initially lived in Madison only during the summer, but for the last seven years, they have lived in town full time and call Madison home. Their daughters became involved with Masks for CT as well.
“Bob was raised to value hard work and family,” Amy says. “He is a great dad who instills a strong work ethic, making sure the girls use the talents God has given them to their highest.”
For Bob, the need for face masks for health care professionals working on the frontlines in a pandemic was so urgent, there was no question in his mind he and Amy had act.
After all, he studied and taught leadership as a skill, and he knew it was time to put his lessons to work.
“When something needs to be done, take action. If you wait for others, on something as critical as basic protection in a pandemic, you may be disappointed,” he says.
“A good leader will take charge [so] what needs doing gets done.”
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The 2020 guide to the Madison Chamber of Commerce has arrived!