Esther Forman, whose North Bergen apartment was destroyed in a fire last year, knows exactly what she’s going to do with a financial donation she got recently.
“I’m taking this money and I’m going to go buy clothing because I just lost my job,” she said. “I’m going to go buy dress clothing so I can go for job interviews. All my dress clothing was in the building. All my clothes that I still have to this day are donated clothes.”
Ten months after a devastating fire ripped through 9201 Kennedy Blvd., leaving 50 families homeless, many of the victims received a measure of relief when the Township of North Bergen presented them with checks at the commissioners meeting on Wednesday, July 16.
The checks represented donations from the public at various events and functions over the months since the fire. Altogether a little over $7,000 was collected and distributed evenly to about 40 families.
“A couple of people declined,” said Department of Health and Social Services Director Janet Castro. “A couple of people had already moved out of state and we couldn’t obtain contact information.”
Castro was one of the chief organizers of the relief effort for the displaced families, along with Emergency Relief Coordinator Aimee Focaraccio. The two of them worked tirelessly on behalf of the families who lost their homes and belongings in the fire.
Their efforts began immediately after the tragedy, as they began organizing food, clothing, and places to live for the displaced tenants.
“Oh, my God, I am so grateful to Mayor Sacco, Aimee, Janet, all them,” said Forman. “They fed us. I only had slippers, sweat pants, and a t-shirt. Wal-Mart came and gave us clothes with tags on it. They came to our rescue. And the [Boulevard Diner] restaurant across the street donated food.”
“We had a fire on Broadway maybe a year before,” explained town spokesman Philip Swibinski. “It was smaller but it was the same kind of thing where a lot of people needed help, so that’s where this whole operation got started. So then when this fire happened, they were ready to jump right in.”
“I was all set up and ready to go,” said Focaraccio. “I had a Facebook page. It was actually for the Broadway fire, but when this one happened, I just changed it around and used that. And the people in North Bergen are really amazing because I post stuff on there that I need and I have it within hours. So the next day I had the church.”
The church was Our Lady of Fatima, and for the next several weeks it was ground zero for the relief operation. The basement became a gathering point not only for the families but for all the donated items that began pouring in.
“The people in North Bergen are really amazing because I post stuff that I need and I have it within hours.” –Aimee Focaraccio
Focaraccio put out a call for clothing, toiletries, household items, nonperishable food items, and more. And people responded in droves. “The amount of stuff we received was amazing,” she said.
“You would get so many of some things it would be like ‘now we have enough of that, now we need something else,’” said Swibinski. “And the people would bring it.”
“The first thing I posted was we need clothes,” said Focaraccio. “I can’t even tell you the amount of clothes I had. Then it was like, no more clothes. Now I need toiletries. I got so much toiletries. I kept posting. I need diapers. Whatever I needed, I posted it and it was there almost immediately. The stuff was there so fast. And then a couple of different organizations like Secaucus and PERC donated all new clothing with tags, on hangars. Our assemblywoman, Angelica Jimenez, she donated boxes of like toiletries and little household items. PetSmart donated all the pet food and stuff.”
Finding homes for the victims was another matter. “I worked with a real estate agent and we helped place them in apartments,” said Focaraccio. “It was a little hard because that was a rent controlled building and some of them that were living there for like 10 years and paying a reduced rate, but we got a lot of them into new apartments. We got them some donated furniture. We worked with them every step of the way. I’m still working with some of them.”
Focaraccio estimates that about 90 percent of the tenants were relocated into other apartments, while some stayed with friends or relatives. “Some of them are waiting for the building to be renovated to return to that building,” she said. Work is continuing on the renovations, with no completion date announced yet. Once it is done, the previous tenants will be allowed to return and rent control will resume.
The money that was distributed to the victims on July 16 came from a number of sources.
“I did a fundraiser at Wendy’s,” said Focaraccio. “It was on a Friday like 5:00 to 8:00 and anything that came through the door, they donated 50 percent. Some donations were from residents of North Bergen and then we also did a couple of bake sales. The North Bergen High School baked a lot of cupcakes at Home Economics and then we sold them at Bruins games. We went canning at Walmart. We got the okay to solicit there for donations.”
Forman could not stop singing the praises of Focaccio and Castro and the town that she said came to her rescue. “When I get a job and get settled I’m coming back to give service,” she said. “I’m coming back to these girls and I want to volunteer my time to give back. What they gave to me I want to give back to help them, and to help the community of North Bergen.”
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.