I grew up in Glendale, NY in Queens one of the five boroughs that make up the City of New York. The six of us were fortunate in the fact that, in spite of not having any money, we didn't know it. Our home, though crowded with extended family members and with its own level of dysfunction, was filled with love and kindness towards others. My father, a proud member of the New York City Police Department, was called upon on a regular basis by neighbors who had an emergency or had fallen on a desperate time, and we, as children, were encouraged to go along and help in any way we could.
When I was young around the age of 7, I was invited to join my best friend, Maureen, and her parents to take a bus ride to Asbury Park, NJ. The bus was different than any of the city buses I ever rode on with stairs leading to comfortable, padded seats and dark windows. I don't exactly remember the ride but what I do remember the excitement and arriving at a distant place, Asbury Park, where I saw the boardwalk, heard the roar of the ocean's waves, and was mesmerized by the flashing lights, the rides, Criterion Chocolates, and eating salt water taffy and cotton candy for the first time.
I clearly remember going into the fun house. A jet of air shocked us when we stepped on one of the wooden crooked steps, and being excited by the suspense of what evil lurked around each corner or behind a door. I remember giggling senselessly with Maureen when we went to go through the exit, and had one more test to go through - a large yellow and black striped cylinder that turned, making it almost impossible to walk without failing. One of the best moments though, was watching Maureen's mother go through the open areas of the fun house from the ground below, maneuvering her way through the moving floors, mirrored rooms, hidden doors and jets of air startling her as she and others held onto wiggly rope handrails for dear life so that they didn't fall to the ground below. While standing next to Maureen's father, we all watched with delight as she stepped on a jet and it blew her dress over her head. She screamed, fought to keep her dress in place and we all laughed - a memory I will never forget. Happy times of innocence, a day of wonder, which we hoped would never end. Neither of us realized that someday we would both relocate from NY and find ourselves living less than ten miles from Asbury Park, but it was not the Asbury Park we remembered from that special time.
While working in state government ten years ago, I was asked to speak on behalf of the Governor at a school event. Impacted by riots following the assassination of Dr. King, the city was a place of broken promises and dreams. The historic Paramount Theatre was in disrepair, the famous boardwalk a victim of neglect, and the rest of the city was filled with skeletons of abandoned buildings and people in deep despair. The city was another example of urban decay, however, as I soon found out there were positive things going on despite those challenges.
For on that day, I met Janice Margot, a dedicated third grade teacher at Thurgood Marshall School. Mrs. Margot seeing a need for change, adopted the Random Acts of Kindness initiative in her classroom. She introduced the concept to the children and had all of her students perform random acts of kindness among the other students and at home, and then report back to the class. She quickly noticed a positive change in the students. So she took it one step further and had them write their acts of kindness on colorful paper strips which she glued together to form a chain of kindness. That day was a celebration of the children's' efforts. When I walked into the Paramount, the room was filled with colorful chains of paper at least three feet high around the entire circumference of the room. Radiant with excitement and great pride in their eyes, the students recited the poems they wrote for the audience about their experiences. The joyous sounds of applause and encouraging words from the School Superintendent, Principals, teachers, parents, grandparents, and friends lit the room and overshadowed the foreboding grey skies of winter and the sound of the ocean waves that were pounding the beach in the background.
I was so moved by the positive spirit in their faces, that I asked the students to come to the state capitol and present the "chain of kindness" to the Governor. The buses arrived in Trenton on a bleak and rainy day. Rather than having the students stand on the state house steps, we moved them and their special guests to the State Museum auditorium. It was there where Jim Zombeck of NJN, who posted the presentation on the local version of a TV program called ZOOM, captured their special moment. However, he was so moved by the students, he presented it to ZOOM producers and they put it on their syndicated national station TV as a model project with the intent to inspire other children. The day the program was shown, the same audience from the Paramount appeared along with others to share in the excitement. It was another great moment, and must admit, I still have some of the memorable thank you letters from the students. It went further than ever imagined. It spread throughout the school system , throughout the community and custodians and people of authority were giving out coupons recognizing the student for acts of kindness done while no one was looking. The following year, Mrs. Margot was recognized for her work by being awarded the Governor's Volunteer Awards for Outstanding Educator. As many dedicated members of our communities, Ms. Margot continues her work and recently told me that, after a hiatus, the Random Act of Kindness campaign will be coming back to Asbury Park schools again. Needless to say, I can't wait!
As in many urban cities, there are always a million stories that need to be told and there is always one person with a mission, driving the initiative to make a difference in the lives of others... This was one of those examples of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Evidence shows that volunteering creates changes in the human spirit, not only is the recipient affected but it demonstrated an even greater impact on the person giving of themselves. Studies also show that a person who volunteers can have a an extended life expectancy up to seven years longer!
Ms. Margot is only one example of the people who work every day to make a difference in our communities. Jennifer Lewinski, my team member on The Citizens Campaign Asbury Park Trenton Bureau is another.
As Asbury Park is a city in transition, there are positive things happening to turn the historic shore community around and people are in the media being touted regularly for their work. However, there are residents who have not given up on their community even when times were rough and continued to work behind the scenes like the woman from the West side of town collecting mittens, coats and gloves for children in need or someone from the East side volunteering for the past twenty years at their local election polling site, we are all stakeholders in the community of Asbury Park.
So, I am here to tell you a story of the silent heroes who have and continue to work quietly at making a difference in the community of Asbury Park. If you know of one or an initiative that is making a difference in the community of Asbury, please let us know at email@example.com.
Many thanks for your support... We look forward to hearing from you and, oh, stay tuned....
Thank you Janice...
Sarah Thoma is a member of The Citizens Campaign's Asbury Park City Storytellers Bureau, dedicated to telling the stories of citizen leadership and showcasing civic innovation.