While friends and family at the Jersey Shore were still reeling from the impact of Hurricane Sandy, they sprang into action. Volunteers from across the nation started collecting items to help people devastated by the storm. People without homes. People they'd never even met.
Often, they heard the phrase, "I only." But as Debbie Nelson, one of those who rallied friends and communities to help those of us here will tell you, "Every 'I only' is like a penny: put a bunch of them together and they add up."
Debbie Nelson watched the reports about Hurricane Sandy with concern. The mother from Dallas had one son living in the Belford section of Middletown, and the grandfather of her older children lived in Barnegat.
She had been struggling with life circumstances -- after moving to Dallas, where she knew no one, her husband decided he wanted a divorce and left her to figure out what she was going to do next.
As the images of the devastation in New Jersey, filled the TV, she was horrified, like so many others. She spoke to her son, Joe Barlok, that day, and the story he relayed was all she needed.
"I told my son (youngest son Tyler) we have to help," she said.
Joe's home in Belford -- a section of Middletown that sits on Raritan Bay -- had begun flooding from the storm surge. His sump pump kicked on ... but stopped working. A neighbor who is a volunteer firefighter lent a hand and a pump. The effort stopped the flooding, saving Joe's home.
"I was surprised to find out that all the firefighters up here were volunteers," Nelson said as she unloaded supplies at Central Regional High School the weekend after the storm. "I wanted to do something to help, to thank them for all they did to help, as a way of thanking the one who helped my son."
She wasn't sure what to do, and then it hit her: She would reach out to friends and see if they would help her collect items to help those in need in New Jersey. It turned into a road trip she and her sons will never forget, where the kindness of friends was matched by the kindnesses of strangers, kindnesses that contributed to making their trip a success.
"Everyone kept saying 'I just ...' or 'I only ...' and they don't seem to realize how those small gestures add up," Nelson said.
There was her friend in Ocean Springs, Miss. -- a town hard-hit by Hurricane Katrina -- who sent along her generator to help a young family in Bayville that had no power, no heat and two small children in the house.
There was the friend in Washington, DC, who took in her dog -- a 90-pound lab -- while Debbie and Tyler, 16, and Steve, 29, made their deliveries in New Jersey. There was the the young man -- an NFL player -- who was able to get a rolling rack moving on the truck she was driving, allowing them to load and transport a generator for a family in Bayville. There was the hairdresser in Georgia who jumpstarted the truck with her Hummer, "because, of course, every hair cutter drives a Hummer," she said.
There was the neighbor of her friends in Peachtree City, Ga., who gave her $1,000 to help with the trip and purchase items for those in need. And there were the employees and managers at stores along the way -- Tasha the IHOP waitress in Lafayette, La.; the Autozone, a Walmart and Thornton Road Hyundai in Atlanta -- whose little gestures added to the pile of donations already gathered, all of which helped people in a state far away, whose devastation they'd only seen on the news.
And, of course, there was Louis Bird, the Chevron oil rig worker in Lake Charles, La., who loaned her the pickup truck in the first place, because there was no way her Hyundai Sonata was going to be able to accommodate all the items friends had offered up. The truck is all decked out in the colors and insignia of the University of Alabama, Bird's favorite college football team.
"He never loans this truck out to anyone," Nelson said. But he loaned it to her -- even though she's a graduate of the University of Mississippi, an Alabama rival.
"He's threatening to deck my car out in Alabama colors," she said.
For Richard Squires, Michael Miller, William Vermeal and Dawn Infanti, the pictures of the Sandy's destruction hit very close to home. Too close, in fact.
All four are graduates of Brick High School. Squires and Vermeal, who live in South Carolina, teamed up with Miller, who lives in North Carolina, and the trio collected donations that started locally in South Carolina but quickly spread into something they'd never imagined, Squires said.
"A local paper wrote a story about what we were doing, and it got picked up by a TV station," Squires said. That blossomed into two radio interviews. Pretty soon Squires, Vermeal and Kip Smith, another former classmate, were getting donations from all over the state, and the trio, dubbed the "Upstate Jersey Boys," found their efforts, and those of Miller, had taken on a life of their own.
"I never expected how big it would get," said Squires, whose grandmother and adult children live in the Toms River area.
At the same time the Jersey Boys were taking up their collections in the Carolinas, Dawn Infanti of Germantown, Md., was reaching out to friends and co-workers in near her home in Maryland.
"I've shipped three boxes of stuff already," she said as she took a break before unloading her SUV, which was bursting at the seams with donations, at Visitation Church in Brick. "People have been so generous."
The generosity of strangers as well as friends was what floored Nelson. The self-described Air Force brat, who was born in Oakland, Calif., met her first husband in college at Ole Miss and though they lived in Poughkeepsie, NY, spent summers traveling to the Jersey Shore to visit his family and their friends, who lived in Beach Haven.
"So while I've never lived here, I've been to the Shore," she said.
Her daughter moved in with her grandparents in Barnegat at one point and finished out her schooling at Barnegat High School.
"This is home to her," Nelson said, so it was only natural that she and her sons would make Barnegat their first stop in New Jersey, to help her children's grandfather pull sodden carpet and ruined furnishings out of his home. While she was there, however, she searched high and low until she found a treasure for her daughter: love letters the daughter received from her childhood sweetheart, who was later killed in action in Afghanistan.
"Everything on the ground floor was ruined, so we had to gut it," Nelson said. She was afraid the letters had been thrown away, but she found them safe and sound and dry where they'd been stored, on the second floor.
She also found all the movies taken when the kids were small -- an unexpected discovery, she said. They were damaged, but she's hoping to have them restored.
Then Nelson and her sons visited daughter Amy's friend to drop off the generator and clothing and more. Getting the generator into the truck had been difficult, because the truck's bed slider was stuck closed.
"We couldn't budge it," Nelson said. That's where the NFL player came in: DeAndre Brown, who had played wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles for part of his rookie year. Brown pulled the bed slider out like it was nothing, she said. But it made a huge difference.
"He kept saying, 'I didn't do much,' but that was such a big help," she said. Another friend, Gordon Hall, had a generator cord and a gasoline can. Friends Keiren and Bill Brady supplied a place to sleep for the night, and when the truck wouldn't start, it was their neighbor, John, who came to the rescue, jumpstarting the truck so they could get it to Thornton Road Hyundai to be looked at, and giving her $1,000 to help with the trip. Autozone gave them assistance at no charge. Walmart replaced the battery in the truck -- after it stopped twice more -- for free and gave them a case of water to help with the effort.
And there was help from friends Kelly and Darrin Zehr in Douglasville, Ga.; Sarah Marks and Randy and Debbie Causey in Washington, DC, and so many more.
"Everywhere we go, we're explaining our story," Nelson said, and that prompted even more help from strangers. "It was overwhelming."
Rich Squires says the response to their calls for donations was so overwhelming they needed a 26-foot box truck to get everything to New Jersey. Renting one wasn't something they were prepared to do.
As it turned out, they didn't have to. A benefactor stepped in and donated the use of a truck for the trip north. Then a group of Rich's co-workers and friends took up a collection to pay for gas and tolls.
"I couldn't have done it without Bill (Vermeal) and Mike (Miller)," he said. Helping was never even in question, however.
"I played football at Brick," Squires said, and that helped create a bond with his hometown that remains strong, more than 25 years later.
"It's Dragon Pride," he said.
The outpouring of support from so many places -- and from people who had no ties to the Jersey Shore -- was a very moving experience, Nelson and Squires both said.
"There are people who are so eager to help," Nelson said.
"It's simply amazing," Squires said.
And yet so many are so quick to dismiss what they did to help others. Some could donate a few cans of food. Some donated a blanket or a couple of coats.It may not have seemed like much to those doing the giving, but seeing the trucks brimming with donations, and the looks on the faces of those who were helping to meet the needs of those displaced by the storm, there's no question that every bit of help -- every gesture, big or small -- has an impact that the giver cannot possibly understand.
Over the last three weeks, people have cried with gratitude at receiving things as simple as a warm coat, new pants, or a hot meal -- items that all someone's "I only" moment.
"All those I onlys add up," Nelson said.
They do. They have. And they will.