When John Wolcott retired at the beginning of October, he decided to fill his days by becoming a substitute bus driver for Ocean State Transit. Little did he know, the part-time gig opened up the opportunity to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy.
Driver trainer Michele Shull came up with the idea of collecting supplies for those devastated by the recent hurricane as she began thinking about the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. Branch manager Deb Murphy jumped on board with the idea, and when Wolcott heard about it, he began to spread the word as well. Before they knew it, they had more donations than they ever thought possible.
"When I first came to Deb's yard three years ago, each Thanksgiving they'd gather enough supplies for a complete Thanksgiving meal for five or six of their neediest families. Last year, the employees even donated the gift cards that they, themselves, had received, in order to expand the donations even further," Shull said. "That got me thinking that all of us are warm and safe here, but we kept seeing the devastation on the news, [and] I thought we could help in a similar manner."
Murphy thought it was a great idea, and a way of broadening their community outreach.
"But we never expected this kind of response," Shull said.
Wolcott says it was a result of many communities and many sources coming together for one common goal.
"The church hall at First Baptist Church is full of stuff, just because Michele asked me to put up a flier on the bulletin board there. A small Russian Orthodox Church that meets there saw the flier and donated money for supplies. Parents and students at the bus stops are bringing us supplies, at all our bus yards in Connecticut, East Greenwich and East Providence," he said.
Murphy said the phones at Ocean State Transit's offices were "ringing off the walls."
Wolcott and his wife passed out a few fliers in their neighborhood, only to find more supplies dropped off at their house than they could fit in their one-car garage.
"We've lived in Cranston for eight years so we thought passing out a few fliers was a good idea. The next day people were pulling up to our house in SUVs. One neighbor was telling another and word was spreading," he said.
He tells of one Cranston family in particular that stood out to him.
"The Blustein family came over, a mom, dad, and two kids, with bags of things. They'd seen a neighbor's posting on Facebook about donating. Their teenaged daughter, Rachel, asked her parents, 'But where is the sacrifice? Everything we are donating is stuff we don't need.' So she and her brother took money out of their piggy banks, used their own allowance for the month of November and purchased things to donate. If this does nothing more, look what it did for those kids," Wolcott said.
Shull said that connecting with an agency in the New York/New Jersey area that could accept their donations was a task in itself.
"We were on the phone for six hours trying to find someone. Their warehouses are packed, but yet they are still in need of everything. A lot of the places have no power, no phones. They lost a lot of the FEMA supplies with this last snowstorm, too," she said. "There's a lot of looting going on; it's a state of emergency still. They said it's mayhem down there right now."
According to Murphy, the original plan was to bring one school bus, filled to capacity, down to the stricken areas. The trio soon realized that one bus would not be enough; nor would two.
"People were really thinking of what they could do to help. They've been really, really amazing," said Shull.
A call from a local fire department surprised them.
"They said they had overflow from their donations so they were going to bring them to us for our trip down," said Murphy.
A trip to the dentist by Murphy's mom yielded more than just a checkup. She came out with two cases of toothpaste that the dentist donated.
Wolcott's wife had a similar experience at the hairdresser.
"She was talking about the donations and ended up coming home with a dozen brand new sweatshirts that someone donated," he said.
Ultimately, the group connected with Salvation Army in the Rockaway/Queens area, and the organization agreed to meet the bus drivers on Saturday, Nov. 10, when they arrived with their busloads of donations. The trip would be a one-day affair on Nov. 11, with multiple drivers taking shifts, unloading and returning the same day.
"We're going right in. We're going right to the site," said Murphy.
Murphy, Shull, Wolcott and a handful of volunteers spent the tail end of last week loading up the buses, three buses for the trip and a fourth bus filled with overflow donations that they drove to a Cardi's location and added to their donations.
"Even though everyone here is struggling, and even though these are tough economic times, everyone wants to know what they can do to help. They just needed a team leader," said Murphy.
"When it comes down to it, when it comes down to brass tacks, we're all good people," she said. "I think the holiday season has come early this year."
The team even received a phone call on Friday from a nearby Target store, looking to add donations to the busloads.
Murphy is proud of her team and how they pulled together, and overwhelmed by the generosity of the communities they service.
For Wolcott, his first month on the job at Ocean State Transit can't be beat.
"I have been very, very blessed, beyond belief," he said. "Katrina, the tsunami, they all seemed so far away. New York, New Jersey, they're close by and we were able to help."