Story by Ken Downey | Correspondent
Lying on his stomach with his head held in his hands, feet crossed in the air behind him, Conor Holtz smiles at the camera in a white T-shirt and white-washed jeans. This is the photo emblazed upon the front of shirts being spread around the country after what began as a Christmas gag gift turned into a face for hope and promise.
Thanks to this simple image and the smiles it has inspired, Holtz, a 21-year-old student from Rowan University and parishioner in St. Rose of Lima, Freehold, has raised more than $900 for the Puerto Rican Family Institute, a nonprofit, health and human services agency that works to prevent family disintegration and enhance self-sufficiency of the underserved in Puerto Rico. It operates out of New York City and Puerto Rico.
“My goal is simple, to help as many people as I possibly can,” Holtz said.
In December 2016, Holtz had the idea to put his face on T-shirts as part of a gag gift to his family. The picture took off on social media, and soon, a person Holtz was friends with on Facebook shared that he was experiencing liver failure.
“Immediately, I asked him what size shirt he was,” Holtz said. “Later that month, he sent me back a picture of him in the shirt saying he hasn’t laughed this long in a while. That has been my inspiration ever since.”
In September, Holtz began collecting donations from the T-shirt sales, the proceeds of which were donated to Hurricane Harvey relief. In a month, Holtz had collected more than $100.
Holtz said his original idea was to donate to different charities at the start of every month. With the end of September approaching, Holtz was in the midst of determining where to donate next.
As a member of the school’s cinema club, Holtz went to club president Tyler Kubicz, and the two remembered a young woman they knew, Brianna Rivera, whose family was affected by Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico just weeks after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas.
The two students knew in that moment that their next goal would be to help those affected in Puerto Rico.
“I don’t have a goal for money,” Holtz said. “These people need help. However much money we can get for them, we’ll get.”
Rivera, a Rowan University freshman who has family living in Puerto Rico, was unable to contact her family members for days after the hurricane. When she was finally able to connect to her family, the news was grim.
“They sent some pictures of my hometown, and it’s just wrecked,” said Rivera, a Catholic from the Archdiocese of Newark. “People have lost everything – their homes, their clothes, their food. Neighbors were trading water for food.”
“We have lost two family members so far,” Rivera said. “One was in the hospital during the hurricane. [The other], his heart gave out and he just fell to the floor. It’s hard to figure out too much about everything that’s going on down there.”
Rivera, whose hometown of Aibonito was nearly destroyed, has hope for those living in Puerto Rico. “I’m hoping that the people down there who still have something to believe in, that they don’t give up hope,” she said.
For now, Holtz has decided not to change charity organizations each month.
“I was raised to believe if you have the power to help someone, you help them no matter what, because that is what God would do,” he said.
All T-shirts cost $14, except for size 2XL, which sells for $16. For more information or to purchase a shirt, email Holtz at firstname.lastname@example.org.