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Photo by Jay Greeson / Erik Clien, left, owner of New York Pizza Department, and Tyler Glover prepare pizzas to give free to students who are missing lunches since schools have been closed.

The epicenter for the best and the worst among us in our collective fight against coronavirus is Hixson, Tennessee.

Truly.

We all cringed at the details of the Colvin brothers hoarding hand sanitizer amid the health crisis.

Well, across town, Erik Cilen may be the hero we all need in this challenging time.

Cilen owns the New York Pizza Department. We mentioned last week his efforts about offering free meals to school-aged kids who rely on the Hamilton County Department of Education for the majority of their meals since school is on an indefinite hiatus.

The response has been overwhelming.

And as he celebrated his 38th birthday Wednesday, he and his hard-working staff continued to be the gifts that should give us all hope.

"We started on Monday, and no one has taken a break," he said. "We are hoping to do this seven days a week, but our staff has been working themselves to ... "

He paused. It's real easy to use clichés about death or sickness until death and sickness are real life, everyday concerns for a lot of people.

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Erik Cilen, owner of the New York Pizza Department in Hixson, is giving sack lunches, no questions asked, to Hamilton County school kids who are without food since the schools have been closed because of coronavirus.

To help offset costs, Cilen is accepting donations. All donated money will be used for the meals for kids.

Get more information at the New York Pizza Department Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/NEWYORKPIZZADEPT.

 

But the numbers prove the folks at NYPD are going full speed.

Normally closed on Mondays, Cilen said there were roughly 100 kids who showed up for a meal. He and his staff packed sack lunches, but naturally most kids would prefer pizza.

"And we do everything by hand, so the waits have been a little longer than normal. I hope everyone will be patient," he said.

Monday's surprising number exploded Tuesday. He estimated more than 1,000 came for the free meal — and the free grace, since Cilen and his staff are offering this service no questions asked — and made Cilen wonder if sometime down the road packing sack lunches will replace making pizza while we all fight coronavirus.

"We will all get through this together," he said. "But yeah, I've certainly been surprised by how many there have been."

Wednesday started fast, too. The doors opened at NYPD — a friendly joint nestled into a strip mall off Highway 153 between Highway 27 and Northgate Mall — at 11. By 11:30, at least a dozen sack lunches or pizza boxes had been given away.

Cilen and his team are accepting donations, and as of lunch on Wednesday, more than $19,000 had been offered to support this great effort that will touch, help and feed so many in a crisis when so many more need it.

Gang, make no mistake, the only common denominator for these kids was hunger. Black kids. White kids. Dresses or cut-off blue jeans. Nikes or shoeless. They all were there because of the tummy grumble, and they were all happy to have whatever the New York Pizza Department was handing out.

And Cilen and his team were happy to hand it out — and for all the right reasons.

"People are giving me praise, and I tell them stop. Don't thank me. Think of a way you can help somebody," he said. "We just wanted to do something small for our neighborhood as a vessel of God and work for His glory."

Amen.

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com.

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