Mt. Pleasant Area bus drivers aid storm victims
Marion Lynch said little about life in Neptune City, N.J., will ever be the same.
Not after superstorm Sandy destroyed so much of the tiny, Monmouth County borough where Lynch, of nearby Red Bank, works among its 5,000 residents.
“This disaster is really something,” said Lynch, media coordinator of the Food Bank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties. “The scope of what's happened here becomes more real to us every day. Our lives here have changed permanently.”
What has also changed things has been the generosity residents of Neptune and other nearby communities have experienced via the massive amounts of relief efforts, Lynch said, including one involving employees of First Student School Bus Transportation Services at Mt. Pleasant Area School District.
Local First Student drivers, management and mechanics at the district on Nov. 7 decided to contribute to the initiative spearheaded by the First Student contingent serving Central Cambria School District in Ebensburg, Cambria County.
“From what I understand, (Neptune City) is one of the hardest hit areas,” said Debbie Ley, the First Student location manager at Central Cambria who organized the effort.
Over the following three days, Joe Baldwin, the First Student location manager at Mt. Pleasant Area, helped coordinate the collection of more than $700 from the employees there.
Several of them spent the money locally on food, bottled water, clothing, childcare products and everyday household supplies.
They then packed those items into a school bus which Baldwin personally drove to Ebensburg to add to the already accumulating pool of resources.
By Sunday, drivers of two First Student buses, both packed full with the bounty, pulled in to the food bank parking lot to Lynch's delight.
“They brought 7 tons ... we weighed it ... food, baby products, you name it,” Lynch said. “It's amazing, they were a great group to meet.”
Toll of the storm
In the first week following the Oct. 29 landfall of Sandy — a historic, meteorological hybrid of a hurricane and a nor'easter — officials at the food bank distributed food for more than 225,000 meals to food pantries, churches, senior centers, shelters and other organizations along the Jersey shore, Lynch said.
“We distributed twice as much food as we normally distribute in a week,” Lynch said.
Much of the dramatic increase in those seeking food were owners of businesses and residents of homes in Neptune City which were dismantled by the storm's powerful winds, rains and flooding waters, she said.
To compound matters, Lynch said, many structures left standing were hit recently with one foot of snowfall from an additional storm.
All still remain without power, she said.
Many still cannot access their homes and many of those who can continue to huddle inside between trips to the food bank, she said.
“They still have no heat, so they come out a few times a day for hot meals, so that means a lot,” Lynch said. “People who never thought they would be in line for food are there.”
The relief effort evolves
In response to widely-reported hardship along the coast, officials of First Student and Central Cambria launched the campaign intended to be a three-day effort to raise funds, purchase what was reportedly needed and voluntarily transport it to the coast. On Nov. 7, word of the initiative soon reached Baldwin, who said he quickly found willing donors among the local First Student employees for the urgently unfolding effort.
“The first day, I had $30 in an envelope. The next there was $125 in there,” Baldwin said. “We have wonderful people here.”
One driver, Kathy Hatcher, joined several of her coworkers in drawing $200 from what she called the group's “Flower Fund,” which normally is used to offer support to bereaved coworkers or those on sick leave.
“We had such a short amount of time to get something together so that's what we decided to do,” said Hatcher, a resident of Norvelt.
From there, the total grew to $760 in just one day based on continued donations from First Student employees, Baldwin said.
It was then that Hatcher, along with fellow First Student drivers Glendell Fisher, Denise Fontanazza, Fern Huff and Carol Prinkey set out to shop.
“We tried to cover everything on the list,” Hatcher said.
On Friday, the group aided Baldwin in loading one of the company's buses with the items. He traveled to Ebensburg and back in time for the afternoon bus run, he said.
Central Cambria students in grades K-12 worked together to produce 67 homemade quilts for donation to people in need in the storm-ravaged state, Ley said.
“The outpouring of support has been phenomenal,” said Ley as she prepared for the trip to the Garden State.
Campaign serves many
Not long after First Student officials unloaded the two bus loads of items at the food bank it was already being put to use, Lynch said.
Crews immediately began taking the resources, ranging from boots to batteries to board games, to the nearby, barrier island borough of Sea Bright.
It is there that U.S. Army National Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have constructed a makeshift campground for the many families who lost their homes.
“In a way, I wish they could have been here to see the stuff come off those trucks for these people,” Lynch said. “Everything off those buses is being put to good use.”
A.J. Panian is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-547-5722 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.