For most of us, it's hard enough managing our own households and maintaining our duties within our co-op or condo community—we may not think about our neighbors outside the association itself. For many New Jersey co-op and condo residents, however, reaching out to their neighbors in their surrounding towns and cities has become one of the most rewarding aspects of condo life.
"When you get all these nice people together, they're going to want to help others," says Jackie Schatell, public relations manager for Erickson Retirement Communities, headquartered in Baltimore, Maryland.
Strength in Numbers
The level of activism in a co-op or condo community often correlates directly to the size and type of community in question. For communities comprised mostly of young families, there may be annual coat drives or toy drives, or perhaps the residents may get together to take part in a fundraising walk for a cause particularly close to the hearts of its organizers. In communities that have more retired residents, people who have recently left fast-paced careers and have a lot of experience and skill to share, the scale and frequency of volunteer efforts naturally may be greater.
That is certainly the case at Cedar Crest, an active adult community in Pompton Plains. There, Ruth Walker has gotten myriad other residents involved in helping those in need beyond Cedar Crest. Before moving to Cedar Crest five years ago, just two months after it opened, Walker was active in an organization called Healing the Children. The nationwide group works to provide assistance to sick children in the United States. They will act as advocates, provide referrals, help with medical equipment and aid needy children and their families with everything short of actual medical care.
Residents of Cedar Crest have gotten involved in holding holiday parties for patients at a hospital in nearby Paterson. Cedar Crest volunteers provide the food, as well as gifts for each child. "We ask people to do toy collections, and we hold one toy drive in the spring and one in the fall," Walker explains. "We have at least 1,200 people here and we collect hundreds of toys."
In addition to raising funds and holding collections, the residents of Cedar Crest have taken a more hands-on approach to helping children. Walker recruited a cadre of volunteers to make lap desks for hospitalized children.
"We have about 20 people involved," she says. "We have a woodworking shop here at Cedar Crest, so we have someone who cuts the board and we have others who sew the pillows, and others who stuff the pillows." The lap desks have proven incredibly popular with the children, many of whom are bedridden and could not otherwise draw, color or paint without these desks. The Cedar Crest volunteers craft the desk with special thought given to the needs of cancer patients, using soft materials—"because children's skin becomes very sensitive from the chemotherapy," Walker says, and using bright colors to help bring cheer.
Walker and the other volunteers also received special requests from doctors who were traveling to developing nations to provide medical assistance. "The children they were treating had no medical gowns," Walker says. "We've been able to come up with 450 gowns, most made by people here at Cedar Crest. Healing the Children provides the fabric—although some of our residents donate their own—and then we sew them. We're told the kids love them. They're very colorful and the children are allowed to take them home after they've been treated."
Time Well Spent
Walker says that the residents of Cedar Crest are happy to help. "When someone says to me, 'I don't know what to do with my time,' I'm always able to give them some suggestions," Walker says, laughing. "People tell me, 'We used to do these things in our own towns and we don't know what to do now.'" By volunteering at Cedar Crest, these individuals are able to lend their energy and expertise to worthy causes in Pompton Plains, throughout New Jersey and in the world at large.
Beyond the assistance provided to Healing the Children, other residents have contributed to the community by keeping a food pantry stocked for people in need. Retired schoolteachers also spend their days going into town and volunteering at local schools. To show their appreciation, "students put on a junior prom for our residents," Walker says. "They danced with our residents and had dinner for us. It was a way for them to reciprocate."
Walker feels that the connection between condo community and surrounding town is a natural one. "Our presence has changed the community," she says. "We'll eventually have 2,200 people living here, and Pompton Plains is a small, quiet town. The advent of this huge community up on the hill is bound to affect the town. Now there are other groups who are volunteering and getting involved with the community. I think it's great."
Working from the Inside Out
In Tinton Falls, an active adult community called Seabrook has been making waves with its residents' volunteerism as well. As with Cedar Crest, young people have been the focus of much positive advocacy by Seabrook residents.
In June, 32 students from the Tinton Falls area received $4,000 college scholarships. The financial awards were presented to the high school seniors at a special ceremony at Seabrook, where the students wore caps and gowns and walked in to the traditional strains of "Pomp and Circumstance." The students were all employees of Seabrook, working in the community's three restaurants after school and serving dinner to some 1,450 residents. The students are not allowed to receive tips at the restaurants, so the Seabrook condo owners conceived of this plan as a way to say thank you.
"The Scholars' Fund is our residents' way of showing appreciation to our graduating student employees for all of the extraordinary work they have provided for residents," said Art Sparks, executive director of Seabrook, during the award ceremony.
Through fundraisers and individual contributions, $85,000 was collected for the scholarship fund and efforts continue throughout the year to raise money.
The effort that went into raising the scholarship money is indicative of the spirit of giving that seems to permeate Seabrook. Of the community's 1,400 residents, 450 to 500 people volunteer their time in some capacity.
Perhaps the best known of those volunteers is Gene Phillips, who recently was awarded the 2006 New Jersey Association for Non-Profit Homes for the Aging Resident of the Year award. An active volunteer and fundraiser during his years as a human resources director for a Manhattan-based corporate firm, Phillips has continued his philanthropic efforts as a Seabrook resident. He has developed more than a dozen volunteer programs that serve his condo community and is in the midst of extending that volunteerism into the Tinton Falls region.
Phillips and his fellow volunteers have created programs within the Seabrook community to do everything from providing assistance to the legally blind to providing toiletries to those residents in nursing care to caring for pets if owners fall ill. He also has formed a mens' forum to discuss health issues and listen to speakers of interest to older men. Other volunteers work to assist those residents with dementia, providing friendship and support for those struggling through extraordinary circumstances. There are even volunteer wheelchair chauffeurs—all because of the organizational efforts of Phillips and his fellow residents.
"All of the credit goes to the Seabrook community as a whole," Phillips says. "This is a wonderful group of people. Given a subject that touches their heart, they want to help. It couldn't happen without so many terrific people willing to do so much."
Now Phillips and others have begun efforts to reach out to the greater Tinton Falls municipality. After meeting with city officials to determine how best they could use resident manpower and expertise, the first flurries of activity have begun with two retired librarians, who are Seabrook residents joining the advisory board for the town's new library, soon to be under construction. "We are waiting to find out what types of opportunities they have available," Phillips says.
And they are eager to help. "Since [Tinton Falls] is our adoptive community, we want to give back," Phillips adds. "Many of us here have retired from productive lives. Some people might not know exactly what they want to do, but they want to do something. We have a lifetime of experience that is better than anything else we can offer."
Volunteers such as Walker and Phillips and the other residents of Cedar Crest and Seabrook are representative of the philanthropic spirit that inhabits dozens of other New Jersey condo communities. Their accomplishments, whether helping children in need or giving young people a chance to succeed in college or providing food for the hungry, should serve as inspiration for those who have not yet found a way to give back. All it takes is one idea, one goal and the will to make it happen. What better way to be a good neighbor?
Liz Lent is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the New Jersey Cooperator.