For me, like most of us in the tri-state area, summer has always meant the Jersey Shore.
Of course, that meant different things for different people. My kids will tell you the Jersey Shore is Ocean City, being brought up on Wonderland Pier, Johnson’s Popcorn and Mack and Manco Pizza. Others will just as fondly remember the gingerbread houses and promenade of Cape May, or the roller coasters and nightlife of Seaside Heights. It doesn’t matter which town, really. We were united by the sandy shoreline and spent our days jumping over the same waves in the Atlantic.
When I was growing up, the Jersey Shore meant Wildwood, and my ties to the town went deep. My maternal grandmother grew up in North Wildwood, and my parents met on the boardwalk there. Every summer we’d spend long happy weeks in Mom Mom Crowley’s childhood home on 23rd Street near the bay, my cousins and siblings taking the long walk to the beach every morning and, after an afternoon nap, spending our nights on Hunts Pier, racing from the Golden Nugget to Jungleland to the Wacky Shack and back. Summers felt golden then; we thought we’d be doing this forever.
So when I saw the post this week about the need for donations of clothing and food in Wildwood, I knew I had to go. Ever since Sandy stomped all over our beloved beach towns, I felt compelled to find ways to help there. I know that’s true of a lot of us. I’ve long prayed for the missionaries who leave their homes and go to faraway destinations, but now it was like there was a mission in our own backyard. For me, it became a calling impossible to ignore.
Although Wildwood itself was spared much of the damage Sandy brought the beach towns further north, they were opening their doors to those who were affected. According to the post on Wildwood365.net, FEMA was sending people to the Wildwoods for temporary refuge. These people had lost everything. “We are in desperate need of food and essential supplies,” the post said.
On Tueday, I called the North Wildwood fire house, which was serving as a drop off point, and was told the greatest needs were food, coats, blankets, gloves, socks and hats.
And here’s when my eyes were opened to how generous people can be. I sent a letter to the pastor of my church, Hope Christian Fellowship, telling him of my trip and asking donations. Unfortunately, I gave them very short notice, sending the note on Tuesday and requesting donations to be at the church on Wednesday so I could take them to Wildwood on Thursday. Considering the time restraints, I didn’t expect much. But by Wednesday the front room at the church was overflowing with garbage bags full of food, blankets and outerwear.
The biggest challenge became how to get all the donated goods into our SUV. The items from the church members filled the back from top to bottom, and we still had donations from friends as well as the blankets we bought up from all the nearby thrift stores. My son decided to stay behind so we’d have more room. Libby was seat belted in the middle of the back seat, then surrounded (and at times enveloped) by bags of food and the blankets. My cousin Mike sat shotgun, with additional hats, gloves, scarves and canned goods at his feet.
The posting on Wildwood365 that morning said that the needs changed daily, so we should call first and check. But when we called, there was no answer, so we decided to just go and see what they needed, knowing that any leftovers would be welcome at the Atlantic City Rescue Mission. My cousin and I, who had shared so many of those Wildwood days so long ago, spent the drive down talking about our seaside memories—the stubbed toes from that long walk to the beach each day, the menacing devil at the Hell Hole on Sportland Pier, the late great uncle who lived on Juniper Street and worked at Aqua Circus. The memories were ours, and yet almost universal, making the recent devastation new and personal.
And when we arrived at the fire station on 15th and Central, they welcomed us with weary smiles and directed us to pull in by a garage. Needs had changed again, and new people from the Toms River area were expected to arrive shortly. They took everything we had, separating food from blankets, coats from bottled water. The overpacked Vue was cleared in an instant.
Since we were already at the shore, we decided to drive up to Ocean City and volunteer at the Civic Center, where they needed help sorting clothes. But before we left, we drove past the house on 23rd Street, where our childhood summers were spent. So much had changed since those days, so much gone forever. And as we learned this week, so much will continue to change. But this week I also learned that together we are Jersey strong; together, we will restore our Shore.