By EmmaLee Italia | Correspondent
The plight of millions of people devastated by the 2017 hurricane season is all too familiar to New Jersey residents. As the fifth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy’s landfall in the Garden State approached, faithful of the Diocese of Trenton felt compelled to respond generously to those suffering from the damage wrought by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in the southern United States and Puerto Rico.
Answering the call to help, Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton began a hurricane supply drive for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which flooded much of Houston and the surrounding Texas coastline. As the word spread, parishes, schools and individuals responded immediately, donating hygiene kits, cleaning supplies and bottled water.
Photo Gallery: St. Clement Parish hurricane relief drive
“Together, with the help and support of our friends, we collected and transported 44,000 pounds of disaster relief to Texas,” said CCDOT executive director Marlene Laó-Collins. The items were placed on pallets and loaded onto a truck that headed to Texas in mid-October.
“We are reminded of the many people who provided us with aid, from all across the country,” said Lisa Thibault, CCDOT communications manager. Noting that the faithful of Houston had been particularly helpful when Superstorm Sandy hit New Jersey, she explained, “What better way to express our continuing gratitude than to help others at their time of need?”
Laó-Collins acknowledged the assistance of Michael Oppegaard, Monmouth County Office of Emergency Management coordinator; Anthony Pluchino, disaster coordinator for St. Vincent de Paul Society and member of the conference in St. Thomas More Parish, Manalapan; Holly Cahill and parishioners of St. Clement Parish, Matawan; and Arnold Valentin Jr., CCDOT data analyst and outcome development specialist. She also thanked Catholic Charities USA, the national organization of which CCDOT is a member; Maria Vorel, vice president of disaster operations, and Zach Cahalan, strategic director, who obtained an in-kind donation of a truck and driver to transport the donations to Texas.
Other organizations held their own local collections, pooling donations from their surrounding communities to deliver to CCDOT.
At the suggestion of Father Thomas Vala, pastor of St. Clement Parish, Matawan, the parish’s emergency committee held a hurricane supply drive for three consecutive Sundays in September.
“We collected over 50 buckets filled with cleaning supplies, and a couple hundred personal care kits,” said Holly Cahill, who works on the committee, headed by Jim Corrigan. “The collections were staffed by our emergency committee and members of the youth group.”
The response extended beyond the parish, with people from surrounding parishes approaching with donations.
“People would even pull up [to the collection site] and ask what we needed,” Cahill said, noting that some items, such as bug spray, were particularly hard to find.
“We really appreciate all that the [Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston] did for us during Hurricane Sandy,” she continued. “They were so supportive, and we wanted to reciprocate.”
Paying It Forward
Mary Pettrow, associate director of Providence House – a program of Catholic Charities that assists victims for domestic violence in both Burlington and Ocean Counties – attested to the organization’s experience with natural-disaster recovery during Superstorm Sandy. In response, Providence House served as a drop-off site for Hurricane Harvey donations, collecting personal care items and cleaning supplies.
“Providence House was the boots on the ground during Sandy five years ago and an active part of the recovery efforts. We are aware that the stress of a natural disaster increases the occurrence of domestic abuse, and we want to be a part of helping individuals and families in distress,” Pettrow said.
St. Mary of the Lakes School, Medford, got the students involved in collecting goods for its hurricane drive for Texas and Florida – a drive that took place simultaneously in St. Mary of the Lakes Parish.
Sixth-grade teacher Wanda Gravett helped organize the school drive after receiving the CCDOT call for donations through Principal Amy Rash.
“The seventh- and eighth-grade students were very eager to participate, and they were a great help to me,” Gravett said. “I know it is important for the children to feel like they are a part of something [significant]. They may see their parents donate money, but if we can make it tangible for the children, they are involved.”
Because the school was preparing to celebrate its fall Spirit Day involving soccer and field hockey students, Gravett asked them to be the main helpers.
“All classes were assigned items to bring in – toothbrushes, trash bags, sponges, cleaner – for one week,” she said. “Each day soccer and [field] hockey players collected items from the classrooms. … We collected enough cleaning supplies and personal hygiene items to fill the back of our school pickup truck.”
Other schools, parishes and individuals instrumental in the collection of hurricane supplies were Our Lady of Sorrows-St. Anthony Parish, Hamilton; St. Francis Medical Center, Trenton, and an anonymous Mercer County board member.
CCDOT is in the preliminary phase of assessing the logistics of a Hurricane Maria collection to aid those in Puerto Rico. Valentin, who has been in close contact with Pluchino and St. Vincent de Paul, has been developing a collection and distribution plan between the diocesan Catholic Charities and CCUSA.
Items most necessary, Valentin said, will be hygiene kits, baby and adult diapers, water, extension cords, blue tarps and can openers. However, he stressed that Catholic Charities won’t be able to accept donations just yet.
“There are many churches in Puerto Rico that are associated with CCUSA,” Valentin said of potential distribution spots.
Pluchino, who traveled with his wife to Houston in September to help those in need, has been in recent contact with the St. Vincent de Paul director. He said “an effort is being put into place to get these things together and on their way to where they’re needed.”