Chris Bickel has never forgotten the help he received from his hometown.
The Ventnor, NJ native, who has since relocated to Livingston, helped spearhead the latest Stuff the Bus, which collected healthy, unexpired, non-perishables, personal hygiene items and cleaning supplies for the residents in Ventnor, who were crippled by last month’s storm.
“I’m proud of the Livingston community for what we were able to do,” Bickel said. “The businesses, the clergy, the schools, the town, everybody came out of the woodwork to help. It was just amazing. And the last time I remember a community outpouring of support like that was when I was a resident here (in Ventnor).”
The second youngest in a family of ten, Bickel, then 16, found himself and his siblings homeless after his mother passed away and his father left. The Ventnor community rallied around the Bickel family with food and shelter. Most notable was Bob Garbutt, the family’s neighbor, who arranged a place to stay with an English Teacher at the high school where he taught and Chris attended.
“With his mom and dad (no longer there), it was rough,” said Garbutt, now retired from the Ventnor school district. “It takes a community to help each other out and he got by. They are now all doing well, the whole Bickel family.”
After receiving help from the community as a teenager, Bickel saw the opportunity to give back, following Hurricane Sandy. Ventnor, just south of Atlantic City and with a population of 10,650, suffered extensive damage during the storm.
The city was part of the Atlantic County evacuations. It took days for many residents and businesses to return home.
Bickel, the K-8 Social Studies supervisor for Livingston Public Schools and a member of the township’s Food Day committee, was asked by the school district to come up with a way that the students could help those in need that were affected by the superstorm.
Administration members of the district sat with him to decide where the latest Stuff the Bus could make the biggest difference. When they said they wanted to help an “at-risk” community that had residents year-round, Bickel immediately thought of his childhood home.
“I said that I have good contacts in Ventnor, so we can really make this a collaborative school-to-school, mayor-to-mayor, council-to-council event,” said Bickel.
Bickel accomplished his goal to bring two packed buses of food and supplies to Ventnor. The buses, provided by Livingston Public Schools, picked up the food and supplies on Friday, stopping at all nine schools in the district, Aquinas Academy, Temple Beth Shalom Preschool, Little Learners and Kushner Hebrew Academy and multiple businesses.
“It’s amazing to be able to do something like this for a community that gave me so much growing up,” said Bickel. “I can’t believe the turnout, not only from our end, but we have people here from the town, the school district and businesses. The amount of resources that people committed and gave us to bring down here is just overwhelming.”
Bickel describes Ventnor as a great “Shore community.” He says the gem is the city’s boardwalk, which doesn’t feature businesses, but instead is just purely there for the beach.
“Many of the leaders there knew they could make more money if they added entertainment (to the boardwalk), but they wanted to keep as pure and pristine as they can,” said Bickel.
For Bickel, while he and most of his family has moved off the island, he still feels the connection to Ventnor and is happy to see so many people getting involved in his childhood home.
“It’s really amazing because there are people (in Livingston) who look at Ventnor as like a novelty, they knew nothing about it and now they are really starting to inquire and look things up,” Bickel said.
For the residents of Ventnor though, they are just happy to see their native son doing well and helping others.
“I think (Stuff the Bus) is a great thing that Chris has undertaken,” said Garbutt. “He grew up across the street from me and he has given back to the community which is really super. He could’ve gone other places, but he came back to his roots.”