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PICTURED: Six-year old Shane Koenig of Union Beach reads one of the many holiday cards sent to his community from an elementary school in Belleville, NJ, during RBRs holiday party for the Union Beach families displaced by Superstorm Sandy.  The RBR community gifted each family with their requested holiday presents so they could concentrate on repairing and rebuilding their homes. The RBR holiday celebration was joined by the Shipley School, a Pennsylvania K-12 private school, which catered the dinner and brought presents for each family. Additionally, The Church World Service, based in New York City, delivered a truckload of home repairtools for the families.

Little Silver, NJ - They witnessed their many possessions wash away in one day. Since then, they have been frustrated by a bureaucracy of endless forms and unresponsive insurance companies. They endure all this while working at their jobs and caring for their families in homes and apartments not their own.  On December 21, in the Union Beach Fire House, more than 70 families who have been displaced by Superstorm Sandy took a break from their new reality to enjoy a holiday dinner and receive presents, kindness and the best wishes from their Red Bank Regional (RBR) community as well as generous strangers.

            “This was wonderful, because I told my daughter that Christmas gifts were just not a priority this year.” Union Beach resident Jeanne Cavallo stated.

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Jeanne and Amy Cavallo, another family displaced by Sandy, were delighted that they would celebrate a happy Christmas due to the generosity of their school district and compassionate strangers.

            The Cavallos are temporarily living in an apartment on their Church premises while they wait for the utility company to turn on the electric to the trailer they purchased. It has been weeks. They hoped to live on their own property to supervise their rebuilding effort.

            The members of the Sochacki family are fortunate to live with their parents, whose house was just next door to where their family home once stood. Mr. Sochacki is busy renovating the attic for his teenage boys to have some space, as they set in for what will be a long term effort to rebuild.

            RBR sought to lessen the burden of those in their school district displaced by Sandy and established a hurricane relief committee to support the affected families. A computer link on the RBR website is constantly updated to match family needs with community donations. RBR students designed special T-shirts which were sold during lunch hours to help purchase gift cards. A community Giving Tree was established. Its special snowflake ornaments were handmade by RBR crafts students and identified specific gift requests for each family member. The Education Foundation donated $10,000 toward the purchase of laptop computers to loan to students who lost theirs in the storm. Students, faculty and families raised in excess of $6000 and added thousands more in gift cards and merchandise donated by the community.

            RBR Principal Clay remarked, “This outpouring of generosity and compassion truly exemplifies the spirit of love, hope and community which has come to represent the RBR way.”

            While RBR planned to make the holidays brighter for their Union Beach families, they also enjoyed the kindness of strangers.  While planning a party to distribute the thousands of dollars in gifts and gift cards donated by staff and RBR families, Principal Clay was contacted by benefactors from two other states. 

            Maria Stroup, the Upper School Student Advocate from the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, found RBR through a connection with guidance counselor Anita Caamano.  The Shipley School’s student leaders conducted a fund drive which raised over $7,000 to provide a gift and $100 gift card for 30 RBR families as well as a catered dinner for the celebration.

            Shipley also brought along their little elf helpers, students from the k-12 school, who greeted the families and served them over 200 scrumptious homemade cookies. Prior to the party, the students visited the beach area and stood on an empty foundation which was once a family home.

            “We wanted to understand the magnitude of what these families have experienced,” Mrs. Stoup explained, adding, “One of the pillars of our school is having compassionate participation in the world.” 

            Additionally, the Church World Service (CWS) , based in New York City, asked Principal Clay how they could partner with the project.  The sponsors of the Crop Walk, whose Monmouth County event begins each year at RBR, the CWS was happy to find a way to aid the victims of New Jersey shore communities.

            Church World Service Executive Director Rev. John McCullough personally delivered box upon box of home repair items, including valuable tools, which lined one side of the firehouse party room.

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RBR Principal Clay is flanked by the compassionate strangers who partnered with RBR in making the families’ holidays special: Church World Service Executive Director Rev. John McCullough, and Maria Stroup, the upper school student advocate from the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

            As the families filtered into the room, they were greeted by their hosts who pointed out long tables covered in brightly-colored holiday greeting cards, the creations of the Belleville elementary school children of Essex County, NJ.  The school’s principal Joe Vespignani, spearheaded this effort after learning about RBR’s holiday celebration from friend and RBR English teacher Sara Van Ness.

            The Martinis, whose son Patrick attends RBR and who lost their Bayview Avenue home, were happy to return to their hometown for this holiday celebration. They have rented a small apartment in Red Bank near RBR. 

            Marie Martini commented, “The people serving us tonight are just wonderful. I have never seen such love from friends and strangers.”

            Mrs. Martini described how the RBR teacher brigade, led by English teacher Andrew Forrest, came to clean out the destroyed contents of their home.  Perfect strangers also came by and joined in.  Recently she opened her apartment mailbox to find a $300 gift certificate from one of those strangers who tracked down her new address.

            “It has just been amazing,” she states, citing the kindness of a community, friends and compassionate strangers as the silver lining of Sandy.