When 42-year-old Ruvee Yao lost her life in a June fire that tore through her home at 793 Broadway, destroying a pizzeria and a learning center she ran, the Bayonne community came together to host a softball tournament fundraiser to support the family. The Bayonne Economic Opportunity Foundation and the neighboring FFP Wealth Management sponsored a mini-festival called the “Take Me Home Fundraiser” that included live music, food and drinks that raised thousands of dollars for the fire victims.
“Bayonne neighbors are always there to help,” said Bayonne Fire Chief Keith Weaver at the time. “It’s a positive that comes out of a negative situation. It’s amazing, the power of the community. Everybody here steps up to the plate.”
That was good for Bayonne residents to hear. Too often, praise is heaped on those with the most to give. But Oprah doesn’t donate her clothes when a Bayonne resident loses her home and all her possessions in a fire. Bill Gates doesn’t donate his furniture when Superstorm Sandy floods the living room. Warren Buffet isn’t on hand to help pay that outrageous medical bill when a kid has a brain tumor.
When families lose homes in fires, Judickie’s Bakery is always there to donate their famed donuts to all involved. C-Town, a supermarket on 36th Street and Broadway, also donates food in times of crisis.
When Alex Petisco, a second-grader at Henry Harris School, was diagnosed with a serious illness, Henry Harris got into gear. Alex’s mother, Margaret Weimmer relates, “Before Alex left for surgery, his teacher Mrs. Senerchia sent out a letter to the students to take a collection to buy him a huge bag of gifts: two Lego sets, a Lego blanket, stuffed animals, pajamas.”
Some of the kids showed their compassion, not just by donating gifts but by writing letters to their friend.
Mrs. Senerchia bought tickets to a Devil’s game for Alex and his family, a great gift for Alex, who’s a hockey and Lego fan.
These second graders will definitely carry on the tradition of their elders.
A guy who ran marathons in a wrestler costume and now calls himself Captain Bayonne helps as much as he can, facilitating toy and food drives. “I meet so many nice people who share my values, sense of humor and love for Bayonne,” said Captain Bayonne, who considers fellow local do-gooders his heroes. “You are always stronger as a city if you support and encourage one another in good times and bad. “It is a great honor to know so many people in Bayonne are very willing to get involved and help others in need, or to just do a good deed and brighten someone’s day. I always feel it is vital to create more positive experiences and eliminate the negative altogether.”
His advice for others who want to help?
“I think the thing a community member should honestly ask is ‘What are the issues that bother me personally the most?’ Once you answer those questions, it will put you on to the path of being actively involved and passionate about working toward a positive change. It won’t seem like work, and the reward is helping to make a difference for all.”
Locals have answered Captain Bayonne’s question by proposing protections for feral cats, planting more trees, and advocating for affordable homes.
Neighborhood to Nation
Others have answered Captain Bayonne’s question by getting involved in issues that have worldwide significance.
Every month, the Bayonne Nature Club, led by Patricia Hilliard and her husband, Mike Ruscigno, organize shoreline cleanups to mitigate environmental pollution, create a cleaner city, and help the wildlife that also calls Bayonne home.
“We know how much the plastics harm the wildlife and in the course of cleaning up, we’ve learned a lot more about the habitats,” said Hilliard. “So, it’s been a learning process as well as trying to do good.” She and Ruscigno counted 1,600 bags of plastic removed from the shorelines since starting the club when they retired.
“When we were working it was much trickier to do this,” Ruscigno said. “When people have one or two days off a week, they have to take care of these other problems.”
You could say they’re setting an example for youth, but Bayonne teens hardly need it.
A group of Bayonne High School students has lobbied the city council to adopt greater environmental protections.
Immigration may be the most important issue that filters down from the global and national scene.
A coalition of local religious leaders, including those from Bayonne, has come together in recent years to advocate for immigrant rights when foreign-born people were dying in detention at Hudson County jail. They also came together to fight back against efforts to prevent the local Muslim community from converting an abandoned warehouse into a place of worship.
Sometimes it’s organizations, not individuals, helping those in need. Nonprofit organizations such as the Bayonne Economic Opportunity Foundation, Hunger-Free Bayonne, the Knights of Columbus, and the Elks provide vital services to residents, including housing and utility assistance, delivering meals to the elderly, donating to social welfare charities, helping homeless vets, and raising drug awareness.
There are many more, some started by residents who experience a tragedy and want to help others. One of those is Pam O’Donnell’s Catch You Later Foundation. She founded it after her husband and daughter, Bridgett, died in a car crash in 2017. The foundation raises awareness about aggressive driving.
In the aftermath of this horrendous crisis, O’Donnell said, “I cannot thank the Bayonne community enough. There has been so much support and generosity sent our way that it boggles the mind. It is simply amazing what Bayonne can do during a time of crisis.”
Margaret Abrams launched “Remember Me” after her son, John “Jack” Santopietro died at age 21 when he was hit by minivan while riding his motorcycle. “Remember Me” is a nonprofit that promotes motorcycle awareness.
The organization awards a yearly scholarship to fire science majors at NJCU. Santopietro had planned to enter that program. It also offers scholarships to kids who want to attend Boy Scout camp.
A driving school offered by “Remember Me” helps survivors of domestic violence.
In 2015, Tyler Sellers was killed on Route 440 by a speeding motorist. His passion was skateboarding. A skate park in Bayonne that had fallen into disrepair was renovated. Mayor James Davis dedicated the entire park to Tyler.
“As a community, Bayonne has always been unique,” Davis says. “When something happens to our children, we come together.” He says that the families should “be commended for moving from their personal losses to positive activities that can improve or save the lives of others.” – BLP