Weathering the Storm: A Drive Through War-Torn Highlands

I do not mean to offend anyone by referring to martial-law declared Highlands as “war-torn”, but after returning from the police restricted zone yesterday afternoon during some of our volunteer work, it was the only adjective I could come up with as a few of my students and players gathered around to ask what it was like. Not having the emotional strength to elaborate after witnessing such a horrible sight, all I could say was, “It looked like someone fought a war down there, like the pictures from our WWII class that I showed you last year, of cities leveled, houses torn apart, and families standing out on the street next to a pile of rubble that used to be their furniture and belongings.” The reason why we were able to get down there, was because we had a town resident in our car, as well as a load of supplies, that included cleaning items and pet food. Yes, we cannot forget our furry little friends, because I am happy to report that the humans in the area are being taken care of to the best of our humble abilities, though there truly is not enough that can be done to help them. Originally, we were supposed to drop the stuff off at another church below Route 36, but on the way, the three of us decided it might be more effective to go house to house—and that’s exactly what we did. One person drove up and down the neighborhoods while the rest of us walked alongside, yelling over to anyone we could see about what we had. The people were incredibly grateful, even the ones that did not take anything.

Once again, we were met with people who took only what they absolutely needed. -“Here, take two rolls of paper towels.” -“Thanks, but I really only need one. I don’t want to be greedy, please give it to someone else.” And then there was this line after I went to hand a man a large bag of dog food: “Give me the smaller one instead, that will hold me until I can get more next week. The guy down the street has three dogs. He can use the big bag.” Later on, when a man asked if we had any work gloves because after gutting his entire house, his were worn out, and we said we only had thin latex ones, I gave my rawhide ones to him. After a few seconds of back-and-forth, “You don’t have to do that”, I pretty much had to force them into his hands and walk away. He thanked me and said, “God bless you, son.”

The consideration these people showed was heartwarming, and their strength and pride were incredible. Even with potentially everything gone, they refused to be down in spirits. Some were making jokes, some were talking about their friends who were lucky enough to not have any damage, but what we found the most was that people just wanted to talk. A simple question of whether or not they wanted any supplies broke into a conversation that lasted for minutes. The only way I can describe the feeling of these little chats was that even though the rest of the town, largely unaffected in the high altitude areas, was less than a mile away up the hill, we were in a different world. This was not Highlands or our state of New Jersey. We drove across the highway and somehow landed on another planet. On more than one occasion, I had to fight back tears, both due to the sadness of the immensity of the situation, but also in happiness at how determined these people are to survive and rebuild, and also the care they are showing for their neighbors and friends.

Why no pictures, you may be asking? Well, I just could not bring myself to take any. I had my cell phone with full batteries, and every time I had it in my hand, I just let it slide back into my pocket. Something in me would not allow it, even though the opportunity was there. It was just the sense that there were more important things that needed to be done, and that it would not have been the most respectful thing to do. Would the people down there have minded a few snap shots? Probably not, but the little voice just said, “Keep walking. Keep distributing”, so that’s what we did. The ten minute drop-off took nearly two hours, but it was well worth it. I have never seen people so grateful, and when I returned, the questions of what it was like went right over my head, and were replaced with just thinking about how lucky I am, and making sure our student volunteers knew how lucky they were.

I also want to give a shout-out to them. More than thirty of our Mother Teresa Regional School students showed up and helped all day, even after working late into the night hours earlier sorting clothes back at the school. I was so proud of them and happy they came, because this is something they will never forget. They are too young to remember September 11th and Hurricane Katrina, but they will remember this. They will know what a disaster looks like, and what it means to help people. When I returned home that night, I never felt so happy and grateful to walk through my front door and go upstairs to take a hot shower. I’m sure all those who have worked these last few days feel the same. Something like this will change your outlook on life completely. Will the effect last? I certainly hope so.

Not to be negative, but I just had one other observation from yesterday’s ordeal that I want to share: out of all the locations I have been to, I have seen hundreds of volunteers accomplishing many incredible things, and all without any official “boss” breathing down their neck. People go to the drives, they find something to do, and they do it. Very simple, and very efficient. However, out of all the people involved at these locations, the only ones who seem to not have a clue are the workers with the blue jackets marked “F.E.M.A”. I do not mean this as an attack, but I just find it ironic and mystifying that the only ones who are standing around doing nothing are the people being paid to be there. Just an observation. Correct me if I’m wrong.

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