Lori Anderson and other people in the room were packing small shopping bags full of Christmas goodies – such as a 2010 calendar, a pen set, postage stamps, and other items that 160 of Bayonne’s shut-in seniors might need.
It is a holiday tradition that has been going on since the Bayonne Helping Hands program was founded in 1999.
With the deaths of former Mayor Dennis Collins and James A. Mahon, a somber air filled the offices of the Bayonne Equal Opportunity Foundation two days before Christmas.
“It’s just not the same,” said Eleanor Tiefenwerth, executive director of the BEOF. “I keep looking up from my desk and expecting Jim to be sitting there. And even though Mayor Collins was ill over the last few years, he always called to see how we were doing.”
“By carrying on with this, we are honoring their memory, because this is what they would want us to do.” – Eleanor Tiefenwerth
“But we have to go on,” said Maribeth Doria, who along with Collins, Mahon, and Tiefenwerth, founded the organization to help Bayonne residents in need.
A decade of serving the needy
Although the program has a large presence during this time of year, Helping Hands was formed in 1999 to provide a program that would help people year-round rather than just around the traditional holidays.
Doria said that in 1999, she noticed that there were numerous organizations, clubs, and schools that performed charitable deeds such as food drive collections, clothing drives, and monetary donations for causes and holiday fund drives.
Doria suggested that they develop a program that would provide similar efforts year-round, and out of this idea, Helping Hands was born.
She knew there was a need for a program to mobilize the many individuals and students in Bayonne willing to directly help people at a time of need. So five people got together and created the Bayonne Helping Hands initiative.
Doria said this program assists needy individuals in the community who might fall through the cracks of existing programs. Helping Hands united local residents and had five main members: Doria, Tiefenwerth, former Mayor Collins, Mahon, and Adriana Sclafane, a Bayonne teacher.
When a fire in October 1999 broke out on Broadway and 34th Street, destroying a building and leaving 18 families homeless, Helping Hands helped out by providing accommodations for the residents and paying for the first month’s rent on new apartments.
Later, Helping Hands again became a critical part of support for those recovering from the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Helping Hands was able to help those families affected by the disaster.
Residents wrapped pennies, sold cakes, held car washes, and numerous individuals, groups, businesses and organizations made generous contributions to Helping Hands. The funding for the program comes out of donations.
Kids help, too
Led by Superintendent Dr. Patricia McGeehan, Bayonne public schools also raised money for Helping Hands. In one case, Doria recalled, Bayonne students gave a check to Tiefenwerth from money they had raised picking apples off their family’s trees and selling them.
Tiefenwerth said the program is especially tailored to help those waiting to qualify for specific government assistance.
“The BEOF is a good fit with the Helping Hands program,” she said. In this case, workers from BEOF delivered the packages prior to Christmas this year.
She said often, individuals or families seeking emergency assistance may require alternative resources, as well. Helping Hands provides transportation in an emergency or other assistance someone might be entitled to. During the 2002 blackout, Helping Hands – with the aid of students – distributed battery powered radios and flashlights.
“Of course, it doesn’t feel the same without Dennis or Jim here,” Tiefenwerth said. “But by carrying on with this, we are honoring their memory, because this is what they would want us to do.”