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Hope Floats in Somerset County, New Jersey
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Beth Boone
May 3, 2007

When Maria Smith settled in Bound Brook, NJ, 10 years ago she had just turned a corner in her life. Maria decided her schedule was too busy and her job too stressful, so she embarked on a program to simplify. First went the retail job at nearby Bridgefield Mall that involved a time-consuming commute, next went the pieces of furniture she found she did not use and, finally, Maria let go of old grudges and guilty feelings she had been carrying for years. “I discovered I had to help myself, to learn how to wake up again,” says Maria. She now makes a living teaching meditation and lifestyle change to clients in New Jersey and New York.

 Volunteer shelter manager Debra Thomas receives one of Maria's famous hugs in the Presbyterian Church of Bound Brook, NJ.
Volunteer shelter manager Debra Thomas receives one of Maria's famous hugs in the Presbyterian Church of Bound Brook, NJ.
(Photo credit: Beth Boone)

So, on Sunday, April 15, when the rain was coming down in buckets and the news was warning residents in Bound Brook and surrounding communities of possible flooding, Maria remained calm. The American Red Cross of Greater Somerset County, New Jersey employees and volunteers were already busy communicating with local emergency officials, transporting equipment to be used in shelters and educating residents about preparing for flooding.

Maria arrived home about 11 a.m. from working with a client in nearby Cliffside Park, NY. Even when the Bound Brook police knocked on her door and told her that residents were being encouraged to evacuate to Bound Brook High School, Maria kept her cool. She also requested that the police help her move the small altar she had set up in her basement for meditation to a safer place.

Hurricane Floyd affected northwest New Jersey in 1999, and some residents experienced damage then, but nothing like the havoc reeked by the Nor’easter that left up to eight inches of rain on the ground on April 15. More than one week later, thousands are still pulling up flood-soaked floors and carpets, throwing out ruined clothing, toys and anything they had in their basements, many of which held up to one foot of water for days before water pumps could be secured and put to work. Hundreds of residents are unable to return to their homes and are looking for long-term housing. The Red Cross continues to offer shelter and emergency assistance throughout affected areas of northwest New Jersey.

After the police helped move her altar upstairs and she confirmed through a phone call that her boyfriend was safe, Maria told herself, “I am alive, I have friends and springtime and I am so lucky, I want to share my happiness by helping others.” With only the clothes on her back, she left her home thinking to herself, “Whatever happens, happens.” Maria got in her minivan and drove to Bound Brook High School, where she came upon 15 people standing outside, looking very stressed out and speaking to one another in Spanish. They had discovered the high school shelter was full.

Maria Smith maintains a sunny smile, even as the rivers flood their banks and the wall of her basement collapses, in Bound Brook, NJ.
Maria Smith maintains a sunny smile, even as the rivers flood their banks and the wall of her basement collapses, in Bound Brook, NJ.
(Photo credit: Beth Boone)

Maria, who speaks both English and Spanish, told the group she could help them without knowing how she would. She lost no time in talking the shelter manager into calling the local churches to find another place where this group could spend the night. Pastor Lou Kilgore and volunteers for the Presbyterian Church of Bound Brook answered the call. The church had opened its doors earlier in the day with support from the Red Cross, which supplied food, cots and additional volunteers. Maria piled all 15 dripping wet neighbors into her van and drove them to the church. Upon arrival, after escorting the group into the serene atmosphere of the church, where dining tables replaced pews and the classrooms’ chairs were replaced with cots, Maria realized that not one of the 15 people she had taken under her wing spoke English. “I wanted to stay, to help them get settled and get help, I understood that they still needed me.” Maria translated between the group and the shelter volunteers.

Since April 15, Maria found out that one wall of the basement in the house she rented caved in, bringing with it pieces of the street where she lived. She stayed in a hotel for two nights, then with friends for 2 more, and now has rented a new house – this one on higher ground. Maria has returned to the Presbyterian Church every day since the floods came.

Debra Thomas, Red Cross volunteer shelter manager, says of Maria, “She does everything with a warm smile and is always giving out hugs – she has cleaned the bathrooms, translated for people staying here and helped cook in the kitchen, we are so blessed to have such an amazing person in this community.” For Maria, the experience has confirmed her belief that to be alive and to be able to give to others is the best gift a person can give – to themselves and to others.

The American Red Cross helps people prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies. Last year, almost a million volunteers and 35,000 employees helped victims of almost 75,000 disasters; taught lifesaving skills to millions; and helped U.S. service members separated from their families stay connected. Almost 4 million people gave blood through the Red Cross, the largest supplier of blood and blood products in the United States. The American Red Cross is part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. An average of 91 cents of every dollar the Red Cross spends is invested in humanitarian services and programs. The Red Cross is not a government agency; it relies on donations of time, money, and blood to do its work.

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