Community comes together in wake of storm

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Michael Millard, 4, of Villas, Ava McGraw, 3, of Cape May Court House and Mia Massie, 5, of Wildwood Crest help their parents organize donations at the North Wildwood Volunteer Fire Company station at 15th Street and Central Avenue Monday, Nov. 5.
Michael Millard, 4, of Villas, Ava McGraw, 3, of Cape May Court House and Mia Massie, 5, of Wildwood Crest help their parents organize donations at the North Wildwood Volunteer Fire Company station at 15th Street and Central Avenue Monday, Nov. 5. - Photo by Jen Marra

WILDWOODS – On Nov. 5, a week after Hurricane Sandy left many people in this state without a roof over their head or relief from the cold, more than 700 people found their way to the North Wildwood firehouse on 15th street looking for help.

One man had arrived in town from Seaside Heights with just the clothes on his back, said John Lynch, whose Lunch with Lynch community outreach program is helping organize the donation effort to people in need of clean clothes, a place to stay or something to eat after the storm devastated their local area.

“We gave him a bag of clothes and food and he asked if he could come back the next day,” Lynch said. “But he didn’t want to come back for another bag of stuff, he wanted to come back and volunteer.

“It just speaks volumes about the resiliency of people,” he said.

Another volunteer is from a family that Wildwood firefighters rescued from their home as water levels breached front steps and poured into the first floors of many homes.

The Wildwoods are no stranger to community outreach. Beef and Beer fundraisers, coast drives and food donations are frequent occurrences on a Five-Mile Island, where neighbors sometimes need some help to get through the lean winter months.

But no one, not even Lynch whose name is often synonymous with fundraising efforts, can compare the response of this community after Hurricane Sandy to anything else.

“The community outpouring has been beyond anything I’ve witnessed in my entire life,” he said.

Missy Alcorn, a volunteer working on storm relief at the firehouse, said the donation drive started when a video message went out on Facebook for one family who lost their home in Reed’s Beach during the storm.

Alcorn said she the response was immediate and overwhelming as the call for help was passed along through social media.

The donations continued to pile up, even after the original family’s needs were met. Alcorn said they couldn’t just stop, as many people in the Wildwoods and Cape May County had suffered similar stories of loss.

Alcorn said county residents Via Zampiri, Haroula Rontoni, Joe Rullo and Talia Piacentine were also getting calls from friends, neighbors and even strangers wanting to help.

“We had to get organized,” Alcorn said and the group joined with Lynch and his foundation.

“The North Wildwood Volunteer Fire Company No.1 offered their firehouse on 15 Street first,” said Piacentine. “It was incredibly generous of them.”

The volunteers have completely transformed the second floor of the firehouse into a well-oiled machine of giving and receiving donations.

Long rows of tables are stacked high with clothing donations, all organized by size, and nonperishable food items.

“It didn’t start out that way,” Alcorn said with a laugh.

“Did you know what you were getting into when we started this?” she asked Piacentine. “It definitely was a learning process.”

Piacentine explained that when people come looking for assistance; they are helped by a volunteer who meets them downstairs and helps them complete a shopping form of what they need for themselves or their family.

“We even make sure to get their shoe size,” she said.

Then, that form is passed upstairs to another volunteer who is in charge of picking out what they need and packing their bags.

Additional volunteers keep busy packing premade shopping bags with toiletries and food while other volunteers sort through incoming donations.

Some volunteers are organizing transportation services, like Phil Calfina, who works at Senior Travel. He took the day off work to drive 22 people from Seaside Heights to Wildwood.

“They’ll stay at FEMA approved hotels in the area,” said Calfina.

The initial goal, according to the volunteers, was to help a few local people.

“The generosity of people in our community took care of that,” said Rullo. “So now we can keep helping. We can help people in Cape May County and keep going to our neighbors in North Jersey.”

The volunteers said they don’t want kudos and many didn’t want their names in print.

What makes it worth it for them, Calfina said, is hearing that Seaside Police Department received donations of sweatshirts and sweatpants.

“Those guys lost everything,” Calfina added. “And people and business owners are stepping up and making sure they get basic things, like clean warm clothes.”

“When something like this happens, there is a natural reaction to jump up and help,” Rullo said. “But I think the overwhelming response is because that this was supposed to be us.

“If that storm had hit a little differently, it would have been the Wildwood boardwalk on the news,” he said.

“Bottom line, is keep the donations coming. People still need help,” Rullo added.

The firehouse is accepting and giving donations from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. until Sunday Nov. 11. Then volunteers will be preparing to move to another more long-term location. Rullo said that cases of water, diapers, baby formula, toiletries, nonperishable food, and clean warm clothing are in high demand.

- Photo by Jen Marra

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