By Judy O’Gorman Alvarez
MIDDLETOWN – Two weeks after Super Storm Sandy roared through the Two River area leaving businesses and houses decimated and families displaced, township officials and residents are helping storm victims recover and cobble together their new lives.
Immediately after the storm, residents began calling and showing up at Town Hall bearing bags of food and clothing and asking how they could help.
“So we sent buses and shuttles to the most affected areas with cleaning supplies and knocked on doors asking what they needed,” said Pam Brightbill, former township committee member and unofficial volunteer coordinator.
Armed with a list of addresses and particulars about residents’ needs – from bottled water to cleaning supplies to help hauling downed trees or dismantling drywall – the informal teams returned during the next few days to assist homeowners.
Brightbill says she was not surprised that people came out to help. “I’ve seen residents of Middletown pull together in the past,” she says. “What was overwhelming was how many people came out. Literally hundreds.”
Whether sorting donated clothing, stacking canned food in the pantry or dragging waterlogged boxes, carpet and furniture to the curb, there was something for everyone to do.
Volunteers took baskets of dirty clothes home for laundering, helped sort through salvageable boxes in basements and sometimes just gave a hug to a distressed and disheartened resident.
According to Brightbill, she sent four high school girls to see what was needed at Shady Oaks, a senior citizen community that had been out of power longer than most areas. The girls spent hours knocking on some 300 doors and talking to the residents. “So many of them just wanted someone to talk to,” Brightbill said.
Brightbill said the outpouring of love and concern from people all over the country was touching. “There were so many outside groups and agencies that came from out-of-town to help,” she said, “and people who just came on their own.”
Among those who came were about 100 members of the Mennonite community who showed up days after the hurricane and in an incredibly organized endeavor offered their hearts and their hands to help residents. Men and women in their traditional Mennonite garb, hauled bulky items, sheetrock and other debris for hours every day.
According to the Mennonite Disaster Service website, the volunteer network of Anabaptist churches responds to those affected by disasters in Canada and the U.S. to clean up, repair and rebuild homes.
According to Brightbill, the group has been staying at Croydon Hall gym and is being fed by the Red Cross and by volunteers from Oklahoma, who showed up one day and have been cooking for everyone involved in the recovery effort.
At the senior center in Croydon Hall nearly 100 tables were piled high with donated clothing for people of every age. Everything from linens to coats to shoes (only new underwear and socks please!) and everything in between – even a wedding gown.
“When a crisis happens, people want to help,” said Barbara Miceli, who, as certified welfare director of the township’s social services, has been manning the pantry and clothing operation since the storm.
Miceli said she was awed by the amount of donations, from Middletown and from other places. “We have another four trailers full of clothing donated from North Carolina, South Carolina, Vermont and Pennsylvania. It’s overwhelming.”
Dolores Vance and Pharie Scott perused through the tables looking for warm clothing for themselves and their children. The two friends were evacuated from the apartment in Belford where they were staying and lost everything that they couldn’t fit into their car.
After being sheltered at Monmouth University, they were now staying with friends and looking for a place to live. “Don’t get me wrong, we appreciate everything,” said Vance, who has 10-year-old son. “But facilities at the shelter were tough,” especially for families with small children. Scott has a 1-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter.
The bags of clothing and linens, however, were a great help. “You got to start from somewhere,” she said.
The clothing was there for the taking but many of the affected residents didn’t realize it, or did not have the time or ability to get to the center. For a while school buses shuttled interested residents to the center.
As people trickled in, they talked of having only one pair of shoes and worried what will happen if those got wet. Despite the abundance of clothing, many didn’t want to appear greedy and were reluctant to fill shopping bags or worried they couldn’t fit too many items in their temporary housing.
The massive clothing and food pantry is only in effect until Friday, Nov. 16, when social services will shift its focus to work with Middletown Helps its Own to prepare Thanksgiving baskets for disadvantaged residents. This year they expect even more families to be in need of food deliveries. Immediately after that, they’ll work on their holiday food and toy drive.
“We’ve always said we’re a town of many villages,” said Brightbill, and now the town and its people are stepping up to help its villagers.