By Jay Cook |
MIDDLETOWN – When Kevin Garrison walks through the front door at 240 First Ave., he’s no longer the unfamiliar face from two weeks ago; he’s now a cherished part of the family.
Through a dizzying number of connections and chance encounters, Garrison helped change the lives of Hattie Hunter, her five great-grandchildren and one great-great-granddaughter.
Under the banner of his nonprofit, Blessing Bag Brigade NJ, Garrison and about 50 volunteers and tens of local businesses donated thousands of dollars, countless hours and 11 total days of their time earlier this month ripping apart, renovating and redesigning a two-story, 110-year-old home in the Navesink section of town. And it wouldn’t have happened without a simple plea for help.
“I think it’s a miracle from God. I’m going to call all these people my angels,” said Hunter, 78. “And that’s what they are, every single one of them. I didn’t expect this. I knew they were going to fix some things, but not fix everything.”
But Garrison did more than fix a home. He turned into a place of warmth and comfort.
The First Connection
Over the past year, Garrison has seen Blessing Bag Brigade NJ evolve from a personal Christmastime endeavor into a regional, charitable 501(c)(3) organization. When the Atlantic Highlands resident, father of two and Amtrak employee, isn’t maintaining signal systems or spending time with his daughters, he’s volunteering his time in New York City and Newark to help the homeless in a unique way.
Straying from the usual practice of handing out food, he’s gone down a different path to help the less than fortunate, literally bringing them a refreshing sense of self-hygiene. Anything from basic toiletries to socks to water bottles can be found in one of his blessing bags.
“Most of these people, when they reach a certain level, getting food is easy – food pantries and soup kitchens are open morning and night,” Garrison said. “The problem is then they have nothing to clean themselves up with.”
After spreading his message on social media, over 6,500 blessing bags were made in 2017 by local ice hockey teams and church groups, as well as students and special needs classes in Colts Neck, Freehold Township, Jackson, Middletown and Rumson schools.
“You can walk around the dollar store for 10 minutes and you’re doing someone a service that’s necessary,” Garrison said.
But Blessing Bag Brigade developed into something much more in 2018. While running a bag-packing effort at Thorne Middle School this month, Garrison learned through teacher Susan Mosely about a student’s family stuck in a tough situation. That student was Timmy Coward, one of Hunter’s grandsons.
Garrison went to Hunter’s house, only to find harsh living conditions for a family of seven. A burst pipe meant there was no baseboard heat in the home; nearly every window in the house was broken, some even shuttered with plastic wrap to help keep the cold out; and piles of saved boxes and goods were packed ceiling high in some rooms.
“I just couldn’t walk away when I saw the situation they were in, the way they were living,” Garrison said. “I felt like I had to do something.”
Living in the home with Hunter were her five great-grandchildren – all siblings who share the same mother – and her newborn great-great-granddaughter, including Dajah Osborn, 18, an enrollee at Monmouth Project Teach and mother of three-week-old Neveah; 17-year-old Rossi Jackson and 16-year-old Jacob Foracker, both students at Middletown High School South; and 14-year-old twins Timmy Coward, a student at Thorne, and Ta’mya Coward, a student at Bayshore Middle School.
Hunter said she’s had custody of the children for nearly a decade, and relying on social security checks to get by.
“But this house, there was everything,” Hunter said. “It was a mess. I did the best I could. I’m the only adult.”
Enlisting the Army
On Jan. 10, Garrison, captaining a one-man army, once again reached out to his followers on social media for any assistance they could provide. The first order of business was to get the family out of the house, which had no heat during the early January cold spell. For 11 days, they lived in two rooms at the Comfort Inn on Route 35. Garrison said the rooms were paid for by himself, Thorne Middle School and a YMCA men’s basketball league.
Garrison found the best way to spread his message was through Facebook Live videos every morning, posted on his charity page and detailing what was in store for him daily. And many of those videos came just a few short hours after his 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shifts with Amtrak.
Timmy and Jacob helped tear out old cabinets and rip up floorboards. Garrison said about three, 20-yard dumpsters were filled and hauled away by ADL Demo from Hazlet.
After a few short days, more help than they could have imagined came through the home, with people giving time and sweat to refurbish the house.
Dozens of local small businesses donated labor and products to the cause. Builders’ General gave new cabinets; Woodhaven Lumber installed the windows, doors and trim; The Floor Store in Freehold provided new flooring throughout the home; A.B. Carpet in Monroe and D n’ R Carpet in Hazlet both donated carpets for the living room; and the Co-Cathedral of St. Roberts Bellarmine in Freehold donated most of the new furniture.
Middletown residents Tommy and Scott Moran helped coordinate daily efforts, and Garrison’s friend and Freehold police officer, Todd Smith, aided in finding donors. Nearly 50 individuals helped daily to renovate the home and aid the family. One of those volunteers was fellow Middletown resident Jen Baker, a mother of four.
“It was rough at first,” Baker said. “Lots of hours put in priming, painting, all that stuff. Once I went to the hotel and brought dinner to the family and saw the baby, it made it all so worth it.”
A Tear-Filled Finishing Touch
At about 11:30 a.m. on Jan. 20, Garrison walked into the Comfort Inn for the final time to escort Hunter back to her finished home. After an anxious 15-minute car ride with the family, they were greeted at the house by dozens of the volunteers.
Hunter said she was overcome with a feeling she’d never experienced in her life.
“They believed in (Garrison) and they believed in us even though they never met us,” Hunter said, holding back a tear. “But they wanted to do something and make sure we were secure in our home and had a nice place to come to.”
Garrison didn’t want the gaudy reveals that happen all too often on television; he aimed for a more personal moment between the family and the volunteers.
“I know what it’s like to feel despair, what it’s like to feel depressed and not be able to get out of your own way sometimes,” Garrison said. “And I just wanted everyone to have that human touch because we don’t always get that.”
The family has been thoroughly enjoying their new living quarters since returning home over the weekend. Timmy Coward was taking shots on the basketball hoop beside the home on a recent evening. Osborn is utilizing the additional space to walk around with her daughter.
Upstairs the three girls share a small bedroom, with two beds separated by the baby’s crib. Just across the hall, the three boys each have their own bed in another bedroom.
“It was amazing, especially in the time they did it in,” said Osborn, of the volunteers. “I was in awe walking in and seeing everything. It was a lot to take in.”
“Not that we didn’t have a place to call home before, but it’s a better home,” she said.
For more information about Blessing Bag Brigade NJ, visit their Facebook page or blessingbagbrigadenj.wordpress.com.
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