Richland man spearheads relief effort for Superstorm Sandy victims

Deborah Deasy
| Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2012, 8:58 p.m.

Chris Lawton of Richland wanted to do more than write a check for victims of Superstorm Sandy.

“I wanted to get my hands dirty ... I really wanted to go and help,” said Lawton, 48.

Demonstrating faith in action, Lawton and three friends — all 40-something dads, and members of the New Community Church in Pine — recently drove to New York City to help people on storm-ravaged Coney Island and Staten Island.

The men gutted basements, passed out toothpaste and slept on bunk beds.

“Time is a valuable commodity and sometimes that's the hardest thing for people to give up and donate,” Lawton said.

Lawton, owner of We Create, a virtual marketing company, suggested the New York City trip during a get-together of mostly couples who worship at New Community Church.

“I have a friend on Staten Island who lost her house,” Lawton said.

Three men in the New Community Church group — Bill Blechman, 49, of Bradford Woods; Phil Cenci, 41, of Hampton; and Bill Peduzzi, 44, of Seven Fields — quickly offered to make the trip with Lawton to Manhattan.

In New York City, the men found people to help through Steve Marino, pastor of the Movement Church on Staten Island, and the Rev. Connie Hulla of the Coney Island Gospel Assembly.

In the parking lot of the Coney Island Gospel Assembly, the men erected a 40-by-60-foot tarp to protect donated goods from rain.

They bought the tarp at a nearby Home Depot with money donated by north suburban Pittsburghers.

The men also joined prisoners on work release programs to organize and distribute goods to people who lined up daily at the Coney Island parking lot to receive the items.

“It was kind of like a mission trip. We felt as productive and useful as we hoped to feel,” said Blechman of Bradford Woods, director of strategic accounts for Omnicell, a medical equipment company.

Peduzzi of Seven Fields, like Blechman, took vacation time off work to make the journey.

On Staten Island, Peduzzi and Blechman donned protective gear to spray bleach on the moldy interiors of several homes, while Lawton and Cenci helped to clean out the flooded basement apartment of a retired nurse.

“You see the people, and the devastation left upon their lives and homes,” said Cenci, logistics analyst for Giant Eagle. “You're just happy to be a part of hopefully restoring some of the stability they lost from the storm.”

On Staten Island, all four dads helped to gut the flooded basement of a woman who, in turn, served them a feast of Italian food for lunch.

The men worked three rainy days — Dec. 8, 9 and 10 — after arriving Dec. 7 in Queens Borough and unloading two box trucks full of goods donated to their Operation Sandy Relief campaign.

The goods included clothing, cleaning supplies, food, diapers, batteries and toiletries collected in late November and early December at NorthWay Christian Community and the New Community Church, both in Pine.

Kelly McKenzie, a partner in Jergel's Rhythm Grille in Marshall, helped to collect clothing for Operation Sandy Relief by promoting the drive on Jergel's Facebook page.

Teacher Suheir Pfeil of North Hills School District also inspired students at Highcliff Elementary School in Ross to donate 300 hats, scarves and gloves to Operation Sandy Relief.

District teachers and employees also contributed $500 to the campaign.

Gary Tissue of Richland, owner of Advanced Transfer in Indiana Township, donated three trucks for the donation drives and trip to New York City.

“Without Gary, this whole endeavor would not have been possible,” Lawton said.

In New York City, Lawton's crew connected with local clergy through the New York School of Urban Ministry in Queens, where they slept on bunk beds during their visit to Manhattan.

The Rev. Mark Bolton, senior pastor of the New Community Church in Pine, recently shared Lawton's written report on the dads' journey with the church's congregation.

“We all shared that common thread — we enjoy a sense of adventure,” Lawton wrote after the men came home on Dec. 11.

“However, God did the rest, and used a lot of people to create success around our idea, which we also received from God. We asked and He delivered.”

Deborah Deasy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6369 or

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