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Asbury Park Provides Haitian Relief

"A Moment for Action"

Ed Johnson
By Ed Johnson
Mayor, Asbury Park

There was a woman, trudging along with an enormous plastic bag full of clothes and supplies. As she came up to me last Saturday morning at the collection center at Convention Hall, she looked me dead in the eye and said, “There but for the Grace of God go I.” We chatted about how safe and secure we felt in our lives until this devastating tragedy affected the lives of everyday people, in Haiti, and here in our community.

In mid-January a 7.0 magnitude earthquake shook the island nation of Haiti and ended up shaking the soul of our communities and of all humanity. The loss of life—family and friends—was devastating to our community. While we were shaken by this event, it also proved to be quite revealing of our ability to abandon petty differences on which we so often concentrate and come together as a strong and united community to answer the call for assistance.

Hatian building in ruins after the earthquake

In mid-January a 7.0 magnitude earthquake shook the island nation of Haiti and ended up shaking the soul of our communities and of all humanity.

As a diverse community, proud to have a significant Haitian American presence, Asbury Park recognized the need to engage relief efforts on parallel tracks—internationally and locally. With an e-call to action issued overnight, we asked the members of our community to give whatever they could to established international relief agencies for immediate assistance. During the first phase of relief, our focus would be to collect donations to fund water, food, medical attention and shelter. In addition, we also asked our community to give clothes, goods and services in anticipation of the second relief and rebuilding phase which would entail a much more sustained effort on all of our parts.

Just as urgent was the need to embark on a local relief effort to provide support and comfort to the members of our community who had been directly affected by this tragedy. Many members of our community received the devastating news of the loss of family and/or friends while they were actively engaged in support activities around our city. They would cry, regroup, and put their shoulders to the effort with greater purpose and commitment.

Many more residents were affected by the communication link being broken which created a sense of helplessness and frustration. Our community and religious organizations scrambled to get whatever information they could to share with the community at large.

Individuals with expiring immigration status were overwhelmed. They couldn’t find out where they stood at the moment. What happens now? How do we return when there is no home to return to and no way to get there? These were the situations that concerned us most and that our local relief efforts had quickly to address.

Our municipal government fully committed to the relief effort by designating a city staff member, Ms. Eve Sanchez Silver, as our relief coordinator. Her efforts during the first few days were key in building a coordinated effort to begin to address the pressing needs that emerged in our community. From the very beginning, the City of Asbury Park made an important decision to position our services and efforts in a way so as to provide effective assistance based on the needs of the affected. We did not want to jump the gun with a “this is what you need” response. It was important that our efforts were grounded in full respect of and responsive to the Haitian American members of our community.

Our effort engaged the community on two levels: On an official level we brought together the city and Board of Education officials, business leaders, immigration law experts, and our Congressman, Frank Pallone, in a series of visits to community agencies, houses of worship, schools and service organizations. We wanted to send the unmistakable message that the community of Asbury Park, the State of New Jersey and the federal government were fully engaged in both the local and international relief efforts. We also wanted to fill the communication gap that was broken, and provide accurate and updated information on the situation in Haiti, the progress of relief efforts and questions related to the announcement of Temporary Protected Status (TPS), with carefully explained details about the specifics of the application process, which might be easily misinterpreted.

On the direct service level we coordinated a central point for donations and goods through the Coalition for Haitian-American Empowerment. The Coalition also sponsored a series of community gatherings and vigils which was of great benefit to the community psyche. As Mayor, I felt it most important keep the community informed and active so that individuals and groups could feel like they were doing something to help. A major goal was to alleviate the frustration of worry and helplessness that comes with tragedies of this magnitude.

Of great concern was the well being of our children. Our Board of Education and School Administration activated the Crisis Intervention Team and our private and charter schools put into place support systems to help our children deal with this tragedy. From the start, our School Board and Administration served as an active partner in our efforts to make our children feel safe, protected and cared for as the crisis unfolded.

Area developers and business owners have marshaled their talents and provisions to share with the Haitian Disaster Effort volunteers. While this has been helpful, there is so much more that must be done. As we continue to address the immediate needs, we have our eye on the fact that this will involve a long term effort.

What we have done here in Asbury Park should not be viewed as anything special. It is normal. It is what neighbors and friends do for one another in time of need. Over time, our differences and concentration on our daily lives may have caused us to stray from this basic community principle. However, this event, which shook hard the humanity in each of us, may very well help us all to refocus on the importance of community and of humanity as a whole

 

 


This article appeared in New Jersey Municipalities, Volume 87, Number 2, February 2010

 

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