Eva Cook says that she anxiously awaits the second Sunday of every December. It’s the day that the long-time Weehawken resident gets the chance to chat with her friend of more than 60 years, Lillian Jones.
“We grew up in Weehawken as school friends together, but she now lives in West Palm Beach,” Cook said. “So I don’t get a chance to talk to her often. But I write to her in advance and tell her that I’m going to call that day. She tells me that it makes her day.”
Kay Meyer doesn’t stop at just one call. She tries to make six: two to Florida, one to Oregon, two to Connecticut and one to her nephew in Amsterdam. Yes, as in Holland.
“I can’t afford to call Amsterdam, so I do it once a year,” Meyer said.
The reason why these Weehawken senior citizens are making phone calls all across the globe?
It’s the annual Merrill Lynch Christmas celebration, where the financial consulting conglomerate enables approximately 3,500 seniors from Hudson County to call anywhere they want all over the world for 45 minutes to offer holiday wishes.
For the last nine years, Merrill Lynch has invited senior citizens throughout Hudson County down to their headquarters in Jersey City and allowed them to use their business phones for 45 minutes of free long distance service, wherever the senior wishes to call.
Approximately 70 Weehawken seniors participated in the event last Sunday. Merrill Lynch provides bus service to and from the complex, provides refreshments to the seniors, allows them the opportunities to make the calls, then gives them a goody bag with a gift and a box lunch to take home.
“The seniors are allowed to make an unlimited amount of calls to any place in the world for 45 minutes,” said Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner, who accompanied the Weehawken contingent. “The people at Merrill Lynch are wonderful. They treat the seniors incredibly. The seniors make calls everywhere, from Chile, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Switzerland, England, Poland, Romania, Cuba and Italy, to name a few. And the hosts actually help them dial the phones, to make sure the calls go through.”
Added Turner, “It’s great for the holiday. It’s a wonderful way that Merrill Lynch gives back to the community. I know our seniors look forward to it every year. In some cases, it’s the only time that they talk to these relatives and friends all year. They can’t afford to call the distant places.”
While some seniors try to squeeze in as many calls as possible, Cook concentrates on just the one call to her friend Lillian.
“I spend the whole 45 minutes with her,” Cook said. “We don’t see each other, so we spend the time catching up. We both look forward to that call for a long time.”
Cook is so grateful for the opportunity.
“How can you refuse it?” Cook asked. “They can’t do enough for you at Merrill Lynch. They’re all so kind and gracious. And there are so many people willing to help. While you’re talking, they give you coffee, danish, orange juice. The atmosphere is wonderful. It’s just a great event.”
“Thank God I get the chance to make those calls once a year,” Meyer said. “I couldn’t afford to call any other time. And they’re all so happy to hear from me. It’s a wonderful program and I enjoy it every year. I kept pretty busy making calls. I didn’t even have a chance to have my coffee. It really helps us all brighten up the holidays more.”
Merrill Lynch senior vice president Art Thomas said that his firm has been providing the service for seniors for the past 20 years, but brought the operation to New Jersey in 1992.
“In the beginning, we had maybe 500 seniors,” Thomas said. “Now, we handle almost 4,000. Next year, we hope to break 4,000.”
The Weehawken seniors have been involved with the Merrill Lynch program for the last five years. “It really was a great day for them,” Turner said. “Everything ran so smoothly. It was so well organized. We were in and out and back on the bus. Everyone was so happy.”