By: Anne Forline
Bellmawr resident, Karen Stebbins, asked herself a simple question.
“What can one person do to help?”
Deeply moved and troubled at the recent destruction of Hurricane Sandy and its ensuing aftermath, she knew she had to help somehow and someway.
Stebbins’ in-laws have a vacation home in Seaside Heights that sustained damage.
However, that damage was minimal compared to the utter loss and devastation suffered by others in this popular shore town.
Stebbins said, “Pictures of the devastation cannot do it justice. People lost their homes. Some houses have giant holes where you can see clear through them. Many people lost their lives because of Hurricane Sandy.”
From that one question Stebbins posed to herself, she decided she had to make a difference.
It was late in the evening on Sunday, November 4 when Stebbins rallied a few friends, Kim Sampson McCarty, Jessica Vizi and Tara Triplett Feeley, to organize a donation drive that would be held at the Bellmawr Recreation Center for the next Saturday, November 10.
It was less than six days away. The donations they expected to receive were originally earmarked to benefit the Atlantic City Rescue Mission.
With little more than word of mouth and a Facebook page called “South Jersey Cares,” Karen and her team did not know where the volunteers would come from or what, if any, donations would come in.
However, Stebbins said, “Things just came together.”
Former Bellmawr resident, Billy Messenger of Campbell’s Trucking Company, donated a 40-foot trailer to hold donations and KB Trucking supplied a 53 foot trailer and a driver, who volunteered his time.
Manpower, in the form of volunteers, began arriving early at the Recreation Center shortly after 8:00 am that Saturday morning. Stebbins estimated that over 70 volunteers showed up to help. As soon as they arrived, they fanned out and just started working.
What baffled Stebbins the most was that no one needed to be told what to do. “They just came and got right to work,” she said. Whether they were collecting donations from cars or loading the trucks, it all just came together, she marveled.
As for the donations, people brought anything and everything.
“People brought clothes, non-perishable items, cases of water, cleaning supplies and food. You name it, they brought it,” she said.
The vibe during the drive was “just incredible,” Stebbins said. “Not one volunteer complained about hauling donations or loading the trucks, no matter how many trips they had to make back and forth from the parking lot.”
Stebbins was so excited and grateful to radio station Wired 96.5, whose on-air personalities, Shila, J.P., and Chio, worked shoulder to shoulder with other volunteers and played music while promoting the event live on the radio.
“They stayed the whole time.”
Additionally, Fox-29 came with a camera crew and filmed an interview with Stebbins during the donation drive.
She was also amazed that so many Bellmawr businesses, including Jersey Joe’s, Times Square Bagel, and WaWa, along with Mt. Ephraim’s Domino’s Pizza, supplied refreshments to feed the mass of volunteers.
Although the donation drive was originally scheduled to run from 10 am until 1 pm, it went a few hours longer because donations kept piling in. Most of the volunteers stayed until about 3:00 pm, when the cars finally stopped coming.
It was not until the trailers were all but locked up and final preparations were underway to start the caravan down to Atlantic City when the operation was faced with an unexpected setback.
The Atlantic City Rescue Mission had closed for the day and could not accept Bellmawr’s donations.
Undeterred, Stebbins made frantic phone calls in the hopes of finding another shelter or a drop-off location for the packed contents of two trailers.
Everyone erupted into cheers when they found out that the Stafford Township Relief Center in Manahawkin would accept the donations.
Leading the way out of the Recreation Center with horns honking and flashing lights, Bellmawr residents, Brian Monroe and Butch Buzby, along with their families, started the voyage up to the Stafford Center.
Located less than three miles from Long Beach Island, it was an area that was particularly hit hard by the hurricane.
Monroe said the response from the volunteers at the Stafford Township Relief Center was that of “deep gratitude. They could not believe the amount of donations we hauled up there. They were unbelievably appreciative because they were starting to run low on donations and were going to have to start rationing supplies.”
Continuing, Monroe stated, “They were extremely grateful to see clean socks.”
Another donation in particular caused the men and women at the relief center to pause: the 500 pounds of dog food that had been donated by Mike Libucki of Mike’s Hardscapes.
Reflecting on the entire experience, both Stebbins and Monroe stand in awe of their hometown and how the entire community of Bellmawr rallied together to help another town. Both agreed, “This donation drive was a wonderful experience that really brought our Bellmawr community together.”
The Thanksgiving dinner that South Jersey Cares originally planned to host for Hurricane Sandy victims on Saturday, November 24th was cancelled.
Stebbins explained, “The cancellation was due to circumstances beyond our control as the families we were supposed to host were unable to make it.”
As for the donations, she added: “We sent all the donations to Union Beach, which was in desperate need. Also, we were able to put together a few packages to deliver to local families in need right before Thanksgiving.”
Anne Forline blogs at: http://anneforline.blogspot.com/