By BELINDA ELLIOTT
Two Chesapeake companies recently helped spearhead an effort to assist Jersey Shore residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. They accomplished their massive humanitarian endeavor in the span of only two weeks.
It all started in a local restaurant with a dinner conversation between Chesapeake resident Diane Perrot and her friend Carey Kalvig, of Virginia Beach. Perrot, a native of New Jersey, told Kalvig about the devastation her friends and family faced there in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. They were discussing ways they could possibly help when a stranger overheard their conversation and offered his assistance.
Dave Updegraff owns CD Hauling, Inc., in Chesapeake. He gave the women his card and said he could help transport any supplies they collected. When they followed up with him several days later, he made good on his promise and the grassroots humanitarian effort “Hearts in Jersey” launched.
Updegraff contacted his friend Buddy Cummings, owner of Graphic Concept Solutions (GCS) in Chesapeake, to help with the logistics. Cummings wholeheartedly agreed and the two began planning the transportation aspects of the upcoming trip. Updegraff supplied a massive 18-wheeler with a 53-foot trailer to haul the donations to Belmar, N.J., a town located along the Jersey Shore. The two business owners also purchased and donated 900 cases of water and volunteered themselves and their staff to pick up donations as they came in at several drop-off points around Hampton Roads.
Meanwhile, Perrot and Kalvig organized the drive to collect donations. Perrot asked her friends in New Jersey what supplies were most needed and relayed that information to Kalvig who put out the word around town. They set up a Hearts in Jersey Facebook page and their message spread quickly. Soon local radio and television stations covered their efforts and donations came pouring in.
The Chesapeake Fraternal Order of Police donated the use of their building for the first Hearts in Jersey fundraiser. That initial fundraiser brought in enough donations to fill a large trailer. Organizers also had a chance encounter with a Hampton Roads resident who has family in New Jersey. She stopped by to donate after seeing their Facebook page. In the car with her that day was her elderly father who had just evacuated from Belmar. When she learned Belmar was where the donations were headed, she wept. “It was very emotional for her,” Perrot shares. It was their first glimpse of the enormous gratitude they would receive from Belmar’s residents.
Perrot and Kalvig worked hard to ensure they collected supplies for people of all ages. They collected baby diapers, formula, bottles, water, and food as well as clothing in a wide array of sizes. Since both women work with seniors locally, Perrot as a patient care coordinator with FamilyCare Senior Solutions in Portsmouth and Kalvig as a consultant with Virginia’s Department of Social Services, they wanted to be sure they collected items for Belmar’s elderly residents as well. Kalvig called home health agencies and assisted-living facilities there to see what supplies were needed.
“When they said wheelchairs and walkers were floating in the ocean after the storm, we put that word out,” Kalvig says. In response, they received numerous walkers, wheel chairs, and bedside commodes.
Donations came in from across the state. One large donation came from employees of a Wal-Mart distribution center in Williamsburg who heard about Hearts in Jersey and decided to start their own collection campaign.
Several Chesapeake companies donated as well including Sentara Homecare, Chesapeake Healthcare, and Personal Touch Home Health & Hospice. The rest of the donations came from residents and churches throughout Hampton Roads. Even Perrot’s friends who live in other states caught the vision and began their own fundraisers.
“It was just a random act of kindness that grew,” she says.
Two weeks after their initial conversation in the restaurant, Hearts in Jersey loaded the truck for the 10-hour trip. They were met by Belmar’s retired fire chief and a group of volunteers gathered by one of Perrot’s friends to help unload and sort the donations.
“When they opened that trailer they were in shock,” Cumming recalls. The gigantic truck was packed from floor to ceiling, and it took three hours to unload. The donation was the largest they had received in that area. Officials told them it would be enough to serve several of the neighboring townships.
“The people needed that stuff so bad that as fast as they could sort it somebody was picking it up,” Cummings recalls. It was an overwhelming experience for the group of four.
“It was emotional on the way home,” he says. More than the enormous destruction there, he says it was seeing the people and the devastation in their eyes that moved him the most.
Perrot agrees. “You count your blessings. You see what you take for granted,” she says. “You see how precious life is and how quickly it’s gone in a heartbeat. It was very profound. It was one of those life-changing, humbling things you’ll never forget.”
She says she hopes the group’s efforts will remind people that the suffering in New Jersey continues. She fears the presidential election and the holidays diverted attention away from the needs that still exist along the Jersey Shore.
“People are still living in tents there,” she explains. “People are still without electricity. People’s houses are still flooded. People are still in need. As they began to clean up it snowed. They had two nor’easters. I don’t want people to forget what’s going on there. This is still an acute crisis.”
Currently, the biggest need is cleaning supplies because of the water damage and mold. Anyone wanting to provide assistance to the residents of New Jersey should contact each town directly, Kalvig says. Each city has set up its own fund to aid residents.
As the group reflects on their journey they have been amazed at how it all transpired through people who had never met. “For us to be having a conversation among girlfriends and Dave just happened to be listening,” Perrot explains, “that was not a coincidence. I call those God-incidents.”
“It all just worked,” Kalvig adds. “Everything that we asked for we got. Everything happened exactly the way it was supposed to.”
The two are quick to thank Chesapeake business owners Updegraff and Cummings for their role in bringing it all together. “We couldn’t have done it without the two of them. We would not have had the ability to pick up the volume of donations,” Perrot says. “Hearts in Jersey just united so many people on so many levels.”