After hearing of the widespread devastation in New York and New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy, Ocean State Transit bus drivers Michele Shull, Deb Murphy and John Wolcott were moved to action, collecting toiletries, clothes and other much-needed items.
The response was more than overwhelming and showed the three colleagues that the spirit of giving is alive and well in New England, as donations poured in across the state and from neighboring states.
"One gentleman, Douglas Buffery of Warwick, heard about what we were doing on Facebook and brought us $2,200 worth of Halloween candy from Target. He had felt badly that the kids were missing Halloween so he spent $800 out of pocket on candy that was discounted by 60 percent by Target when they heard what he was doing," said Wolcott, a resident of Cranston.
Similar stories of donations, each one better than the last, were shared by Murphy, Shull and Wolcott when they met up again after the trip.
"Joann Wahl, one of the drivers and her daughter, Roselyn Archambault, had pallets of donated items from Electric Boat in Quonset. Debera Donovan drives one of the buses, and her son, Patrick Donovan raised $250 through his office at Electric Boat in Groton," Shull said. "My sister drives a bus to Griswold High School and asked them to get the community there on board. Their student council raised over $300 to be donated."
It became clear to the group early on that their original plan of filling a school bus was not going to be enough.
"In the end, we filled three buses and a large pickup truck pulling a trailer," said Wolcott.
There was some juggling to be done in order to best utilize the space they had, to bring down as much as possible.
"I packed those buses over and over to fit as much in as we could," said Murphy.
Fifteen people in total, including Wolcott and his wife, Murphy and her son, and Shull and her daughter, traveled to Brooklyn for the one-day, round trip drive.
"We headed south just after dawn on Saturday, Nov. 10. Four hours later, we were unloading at the Salvation Army's distribution warehouse in Brooklyn, which services much of the metropolitan area. Two of the buses unloaded their wares into the warehouse and the third transferred everything to a Salvation Army truck, which left immediately for coastal New Jersey," said Wolcott. "The truck and trailer brought their cargo directly to a church in Rockaway, Queens, and the bus company's affiliate in New Hampshire sent two filled buses of their own.”
Wolcott's wife had created signs to put inside the windows of the bus, telling neighboring drivers where the buses were headed and why.
"There was lots of beeping on the road going down," Wolcott said.
Murphy and Shull met personally with their contact at Salvation Army, who told them many of the sad stories that he'd seen so far.
"It was very humbling," said Murphy.
The group was happy when their donations were met with surprise and appreciation from those Salvation Army volunteers who helped them unload.
"They couldn't believe some of the items we'd thought to bring, like diapers and batteries and they couldn't believe the amount of new things we brought them," Murphy said.
The list of items the group had originally created included things they thought any family might need after a disaster, such as food, clothing, batteries, cleaning supplies, toiletries and dog and cat food, for example.
"They were very appreciative," Wolcott said.
When the 15 volunteers returned home that evening, their phones were still ringing with people asking for a drop-off spot for their continued donations.
"I still have $900 more to spend on donations," Wolcott said. Shull noted that her former sister-in-law in Maine had mailed a gift card that did not arrive in time, so she too has money to spend on additional donations.
"We were tired and a little sore, and by all accounts, fulfilled,” Wolcott said. “Our mission of mercy may not have made a huge difference to a large number of people, but it was a fine example of what a community can do when it puts its collective hands together for the right purpose."