Giving Back

Ammon Foundation Helps Recovering Addicts Get Back on Track

Erin McGonigle, center, and her daughters on the day she received her Ammon Foundation scholarship. Courtesy of Jeremy Timberman

Erin McGonigle finally realized she had to get clean. In 2016, McGonigle, a single mom, faced the possibility of losing custody of her two kids. She was at Wawa when an employee suspected McGonigle was using drugs in a bathroom stall, in the company of her young daughters. She was later arrested when police found heroin and a needle in her purse.

“I love my children more than I love myself,” says McGonigle, 30. “I had to really find it deep within myself to get control of what was controlling me for so long.”

McGonigle’s stepmother moved into her South Jersey home and cared for her kids for six months while McGonigle attended Narcotics Anonymous and enrolled in an outpatient program at the John Brooks Recovery Center in Atlantic City. It was there that the waitress, who is now also a student, discovered she wasn’t alone. McGonigle found comfort in talking with other addicts. “Most of them suffered the same issues,” she says.

After completing the program, McGonigle met one of the directors of the Linden-based Ammon Foundation, which offers scholarships and life-skills training to recovering addicts. McGonigle received a scholarship to attend Atlantic Cape Community College, where she’s working on a degree in psychosocial rehabilitation and addictions counseling.

Stephen Haupt, a recovering alcoholic, launched the Ammon Foundation in 2016, after recognizing a gap between treatment and post-treatment support. He noticed most people in treatment didn’t stay longer than 28 days and cycled through the program. In 1998, Haupt had founded Ammon Labs, a commercial toxicology lab. After seeking treatment himself in 2016, the Ammon Foundation followed.

Last year, the foundation provided 85 scholarships, averaging $1,000-$2,000 each, to 62 individuals. Its life-skills program focuses on skills such as self care, budgeting, time management, study skills, interviewing skills and résumé writing.

“Nationally, out of every 10 people that go to treatment, seven of them are re-engaging with drug use within the first two years,” says Mariel Hufnagel, executive director of the Ammon Foundation. “But of those who pursued education, seven out of 10 stayed sober.”

For McGonigle, the Ammon Foundation has provided the opportunity to work toward her goals. “I just want to help people to the best of my ability. I want to continue to be the best mom I can be,” McGonigle says, “and just live a normal life.”

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For Children Battling Illness, Make-A-Wish New Jersey Fulfills Life-Changing Wishes

Micaela, left, shadowed Dr. Ourania Preventza for one wish-fulfilling week at a Texas hospital. Courtesy of Make-A-Wish New Jersey

“We want to bring joy and adventure back into? their lives.” —Thomas P. Weatherall, CEO

Wishes come in all shapes and sizes: meeting a famous person, taking an unforgettable vacation, or making a difference in someone else’s life.

When Make-A-Wish New Jersey asked cancer patient Micaela for her wish, the 16-year-old revealed her desire to become a cardiothoracic surgeon. “I knew I was interested in medicine,” says Micaela (whose full name is withheld to protect her privacy).

Make-A-Wish NJ seeks to make wishes come true for children and teens like Micaela who are diagnosed with critical illnesses, including cystic fibrosis, nervous-system disorders and cancer. The organization’s sole mission is to grant wishes and contribute to the well-being of the children who come to them for help.

“Make-A-Wish wants to come into their lives and change those heavy experiences of fear and the unknown,” says Thomas Weatherall, CEO of Make-A-Wish NJ since 2005. The children referred to the charity are not all terminally ill, but their illnesses are, in one way or another, life threatening. “We want to bring childhood, joy and adventure back into their lives…and ideally, bring some strength to their battles as well.”

Make-A-Wish NJ receives no government funding and never charges a fee. Instead, it relies on philanthropy. “We are so fortunate in New Jersey to have one of the most generous communities in the country,” says Weatherall.

The nonprofit is headquartered in Monroe Township in a whimsical, castle-like building named for donors Samuel and Josephine Plumeri. Walking through its forest-like halls, children enter a land of enchantment. Vivid murals adorn the Inspiration Room, while hooting owls, brewing potions and a wishing star add fantasy to the Wishing Room.

In New Jersey, approximately 700 children a year are diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. Improving their outlook and chance for recovery is the critical work of Make-A-Wish NJ.

“We are more than warm and fuzzy,” says Weatherall. “We are at times just as important as the treatment protocols these children are receiving.”

Samuel and Josephine Plumeri Wishing Place in Monroe Township. Courtesy of Make-A-Wish New Jersey

Of course, Make-A-Wish NJ couldn’t turn Micaela into a surgeon, but it was able to expose her to that world at the Texas Heart Institute (THI) in Houston, Texas. For an entire week, Micaela shadowed Dr. Ourania Preventza, attending cardiothoracic surgeon at THI. Micaela observed six surgeries, visited the research labs, and met other specialists.

“One word for that whole week is gratitude,” says her mother, Lily.

This year, Make-A-Wish NJ aims to bring the same kind of experience to at least 600 of New Jersey’s critically ill children.

Make-A-Wish NJ president and CEO Thomas P. Weatherall with several of New Jersey’s Make-A-Wish kids. Courtesy of Make-A-Wish New Jersey

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In Ocean Grove, a Comforting Respite for Women Battling Cancer

Guests, staff and volunteers share stories over a meal at Mary’s Place by the Sea in Ocean Grove. Photo by Bugsmom Photography

Tracey Kurtz was on a mission. The day in 2017 when she first walked through the doors of Mary’s Place by the Sea in Ocean Grove, Kurtz had just been diagnosed with cancer. At Mary’s Place, a respite home for women being treated for cancer, the West Belmar resident found a support group to help her through her ordeal. “I had never known anyone with cancer, and I was desperate to talk to someone like me,” she recalls. Kurtz, now in remission, still goes back to visit, more than one year after completing her treatments.

June 19 will mark the 10th anniversary of Mary’s Place. Cofounders Michele Gannon and Maria McKeon, who now serve as the paid president and vice president, respectively, opened Mary’s Place with two rented bedrooms in an Ocean Grove B&B. Two years later, they moved to a house in town with four beds; three years ago, they relocated to a 10-bedroom house built for the organization on Main Avenue.

To date, Mary’s Place has served close to 10,000 women from all over the country. “We have a paid staff of seven, over 120 volunteers, and a nine-member board,” Gannon says.

Guests can come for the day (Tuesday-Saturday) or settle in for a one- or two-night stay. Reservations are required for all visits (go to Activities include Reiki, yoga, oncology massages, individual and group counseling with trained therapists, guided meditation, nutrition education, expressive writing and jewelry making.

All Mary’s Place services, including meals, are complimentary. “Our budget is $600,000 a year. We raise about $200,000 with our walk-a-thon,” says Gannon. “We also apply for grants, but we couldn’t do this without the extra money we get from the people who throw fundraisers for us,” Gannon says, noting that their combined fundraising efforts generate $1.2 million. Funding beyond the annual budget is reserved for future expansion.

Marilee Celestino, 61, a former cancer patient, volunteers at least two Saturdays a month. She’s also there to support guests who need to talk to someone who has shared their journey. “I spend a lot of time talking to the guests, but more importantly, listening,” she says.

Kurtz, now 53, says that her cancer journey and Mary’s Place gave her a new perspective on cancer and on life. “I see what I’m made of now and how strong I am,” she says. “I know things I didn’t know before. I can ask for what I need, and I love myself.”

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How a Jersey Couple Harnessed the Healing Power of Horses

Veteran Kevin Henry takes comfort in Shiloh, a rescued mustang at the Unbridled Heroes Project. Courtesy of Amy McCambridge-Steppe

When Amy McCambridge-Steppe and Mark Steppe married in 2009, they shared a dream of opening a sanctuary for abused animals. That vision was realized in September 2018 when they founded the Unbridled Heroes Project in Allendale—but first, they had their own healing to handle.

Amy, 39, and Mark, 36, military veterans living in Ridgewood, were dealing with Mark’s post-traumatic stress. His unit had lost 18 men during one year in Iraq. “The war had come home with him,” says Amy. “I couldn’t help him forget what he had been through.” To make matters worse, Mark was in constant pain from lesions on his spine, caused in part, they believe, by military use of depleted uranium. No medication worked, so Mark numbed the pain with alcohol.

During Mark’s ordeal, Amy worked as a soccer trainer and cared for the couple’s sons, Jack, now 10, and Torin, 17, from Amy’s prior marriage. Then hardship struck again. Amy’s debilitating headaches were traced to a benign brain tumor.

Just when things seemed hopeless, Amy visited a rescue in Mahwah, where she met Phoenix, a horse so traumatized that no one could get near her. Amy visited every day, talking to Phoenix. It took five months before she could touch the horse, but during this time, Amy’s headaches eased. Doctors are taking a wait-and-watch approach to Amy’s tumor; she says Phoenix made her feel like getting out of bed every morning. 

“We want to revive the unbridled spirit in both our rescued horses and our heroes.” —Amy McCambridge-Steppe

While Amy was spending time with Phoenix, Mark met Saturn, another rescue. Saturn was considered dangerous—but not for Mark, who gained a feeling of calm as he bonded with the horse.  

The time seemed right for Amy and Mark to chase their dream. They rented pastureland and launched the Unbridled Heroes Project with three wild mustangs obtained from other rescue and training facilities. 

The Steppes now are helping others heal. Clients include two veterans, two EMTs and several children who have experienced trauma. Kevin Bombace, 22, a Marine who has leukemia, says that Hope, one of the Steppes’ mustangs, made a difference in his life. “She took away negative thoughts so I can live in the moment,” he says. “We formed a real bond.”

“We want to revive the unbridled spirit in both our rescued horses and our heroes,” says Amy, so they can “find solace in each other.”

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Vineland Toddler Named Ambassador For Down Syndrome Nonprofit

Photo courtesy of Paula Ferrari

Paula and Augustus Ferrari are working to combat negative stigma around Down syndrome—one pie in the face at a time.

Last month, Augustus, 2, became a global ambassador for Nothing Down, a nonprofit that aims to spread awareness of Down syndrome through events as well as video and social media campaigns. Having joined the ranks of 33 global ambassadors, the Vineland toddler is responsible for growing and accomplishing developmental milestones while his family shares his progress on social media.

“He’s doing the work and I’m sharing it,” says Paula, Augustus’s mother. Ambassadors also share and take part in events and social media initiatives for the organization. Enter the Nothing Down Pie Challenge, one of Augustus’s first projects. The challenge, now in its third year, is somewhat similar to the “Ice Bucket Challenge” for the ALS Association that circulated widely on social media in 2014. Participants have the option of smashing a pie in their faces or donating to Nothing Down within 48 hours. Afterward, they must nominate three more people to participate. Videos of the challenge have garnered more than 30,000 views across YouTube, Instagram and Facebook combined. Augustus even took a pie to the face himself.

“It’s a fun way to get people talking about the real reason behind the challenge, while raising money for Down syndrome awareness,” says Shannon Daughtry, co-founder of the Linwood-based organization. Ultimately, the goal is to show “there’s nothing down about Down syndrome.”

Paula wants others to know that having a child with Down syndrome can be a blessing. “It’s been amazing,” she says. “I never would have thought in a million years that having a child with a disability would be such a gift to me and my family.”

She describes the experience of watching Augustus and the other ambassadors grow as “humbling” because they work hard at improving skills that many take for granted, like walking and talking.

Paula hopes Augustus will continue his journey into the realm of self-advocacy as he gets older.

“All the things I was afraid of, I shouldn’t have been,” Paula says. “That’s why we do what we do, to show people there is nothing to be afraid of and it’s really the biggest blessing we could have received.”

To get involved with Nothing Down, follow the organization on Facebook, or visit its website for more information on upcoming events.

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Big Brothers Big Sisters Is Here to Help

Carlos Lejnieks and
his fellow mentors provide consistency and a solid foundation for growth for their “Littles.”
Courtesy of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Essex, Hudson & Union Counties

Carlos Lejnieks wants to rewrite history.

Lejnieks, the president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Essex, Hudson and Union Counties, knows how far positive influences can go in changing the lives of kids who might otherwise have a future without hope.

“Evidence shows that negative things decrease while positive outcomes increase when we get on the front end of young people’s lives,” says Lejnieks.

That’s the vision behind Big Brothers Big Sisters and its ambitious mentoring program. The nonprofit’s overarching mission is to have adults, called Bigs, volunteer four hours a month—just one hour a week—to mentor a child (or Little) in grades K-12. The Big provides stability and a positive foundation for youth development by engaging in activities with his or her Little. These activities might include a sports event or a visit to a museum or college. “The variable is the activity,” says Lejnieks. “The constant is the Big.”

Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Essex, Hudson and Union serves just over 1,000 kids. The program started with the support of such prominent philanthropists as Josh Weston, Ray Chambers, the Simon Foundation, Leslie Quick and Rose Cali.

Fundraising remains an important function. The program hosts an annual Bowl for Kids Sake fundraiser in West Orange, with as many as 1,000 Bigs, Littles and friends coming together for bowling. The organization also hosts an annual summer picnic and winter roller-skating party at Branch Brook Park in Newark.

There is plenty of proof of mentoring’s positive impact on at-risk kids. In 2018, 95 percent of the kids serviced by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Essex, Hudson and Union graduated from high school. That’s especially impressive, considering 29 percent of the young people in the program have parents who are incarcerated. That’s where stability plays a key role. On average, most of the program’s mentoring matches last more than double the minimum requirement of one year. 

Amid this success, it’s hard to meet the demand for adult mentors, particularly male mentors. Currently, there are nearly 400 boys on the program’s waiting list. And the demand continues to grow, thanks in large part to referrals from the New Jersey Department of Child Protection and Permanency.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Essex, Hudson and Union Counties’ new corporate partners include Valley Bank, which, together with the Union County Chosen Freeholders, was essential in helping Big Brothers Big Sisters launch Bigs in Blue, a program aimed at rebuilding trust between youth and law enforcement. “This is an opportunity to build a bridge between two sets of our community,” says Lejnieks. “The cop understands that this is a child, the child understands that the cop is a human being.  If you humanize the other, it helps in a crime-prevention strategy.”

The organization plans to build new mentoring relationships by working with even more corporations. Lejnieks cites a recent Gallup study that underscores the importance of mentoring for the next generation of employers. The study showed that 70 percent of employees are disengaged in their employment, which leads to retention issues. A connection to the community “is what the next crop of employees will need to be happy, engaged and productive,” says Lejnieks. “If we do our job right, we can help the corporate sector in their business imperatives, while also creating positive impact in the lives of our children. We often hear that becoming a Big will not feel like just a program.  This will become a part of your life.”

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Hope Loves Company Supports the Children of Families Affected by ALS

Amaya, Charnelle, Aubrey and Randie Lynn at an overnight Hope Loves Company camp in 2018. Photo courtesy of the Lynn family

Last summer, at the age of 49, Randie Lynn was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)—also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The progressive disease affects parts of the nervous system that control voluntary muscle movement, affecting a person’s ability to speak, walk, eat and breathe independently. There is no known cure for ALS, and patients typically survive for about two to five years after diagnosis.

Randie’s wife, Charnelle Bain-Lynn, now transports him to and from doctor’s appointments and assists him at home. The West Orange couple has two daughters, 18-year-old Amaya and 12-year-old Aubrey.

After Randie’s diagnosis, the family’s counselor connected them with Hope Loves Company (HLC), a nonprofit based in Pennington that provides emotional and educational support to children and young adults who have or had a family member battling ALS.

There are 30,000 Americans living with ALS. Nearly 85 percent have a child or grandchild. HLC is the only organization dedicated to supporting the children in affected families. It provides free resources, including children’s books about ALS as well as care packages.

Founder Jodi O’Donnell-Ames’s late husband Kevin was diagnosed with ALS at 29. She struggled to care for their young daughter while also being her husband’s main caregiver until his death six years later. “The well parent is so preoccupied,” says O’Donnell-Ames. “Think of the emotional toll that takes on the children.”

O’Donnell-Ames remarried, to a man who also lost his partner to ALS. They observed that their three children—all of whom lost a parent to ALS before age 12—were processing grief differently. So in 2007, she started HLC to help similar kids.

“Jodi is not someone who started a foundation just because,” says Bain-Lynn. “She lived what I am living.”

HLC’s programs include three-day summer camps, which are free and take place in New Jersey and five other states. “Our campers often say, ‘This is the first time I haven’t had to explain ALS,’” says O’Donnell-Ames.

The Lynn family attended a camp last year. “All the kids there knew they had experienced the same thing,” says Bain-Lynn, who is grateful for the support HLC provides.

“For me, helping is healing,” says O’Donnell-Ames. “When you help a child, you help parents.”

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Freezin’ for a Reason: Spotlight on SONJ Polar Bear Plunge

Fearless swimmers gear up for their annual Seaside Heights Polar Bear Plunge in support of Special Olympics New Jersey.

Polar Bear Plungers charge the Atlantic Ocean in Seaside Heights.
Courtesy of Special Olympics New Jersey

Mike Laverty saw his son Tim walk for the first time at an event hosted by Special Olympics New Jersey (SONJ), an organization that provides sports training and competition to individuals with intellectual disabilities. Tim, who uses a walker and wears leg orthotics, participated in the 50-yard dash. 

On the day of the competition, Tim, then 10, stood on the track without his walker. His teacher walked backwards in front of him with her hands outstretched. When he finished, Tim was in tears. Laverty was, too. “He walked that whole 50 yards, and I had never seen him walk across the room,” says Laverty. 

After this triumph, Tim and his sister Laura, who also has disabilities, continued to participate in SONJ activities. The organization holds more than 260 competitive events throughout the state in 24 sports, all of which are free to participants. “[SONJ] is really teaching a whole different population how to act and behave around people with disabilities,” says Laverty.

SONJ’s largest fundraiser is the Polar Bear Plunge. In the winter, participants run into the freezing Atlantic to support the 25,000 SONJ athletes. There are three annual plunges: an Asbury Park event in November, one in Wildwood in January, and one in Seaside Heights in February. Last year, about 7,100 Seaside Heights plunge participants raised more than $2.2 million.

This year’s Seaside Heights event on February 23 will be Mike Laverty’s 16th; he calls it his sweet 16. His team, the Little Silver Crocs, have raised more than $1 million over the last 15 years. Laverty alone has raised nearly $450,000. 

Before his first plunge in 2004, Laverty e-mailed his coworkers describing the first time he saw Tim walk and asking for donations. “I probably had $1,000 within the first hour,” says Laverty. “I was unbelievably touched.”

The morning of the plunge is like a tailgate for Laverty and his 50 or so teammates, who hop on a bus from Little Silver to Seaside Heights. They eat and hang out until 1 pm, when all plungers take a dip. Laverty’s other son, Matt, sometimes participates.  

“I can’t even begin to tell you what it does for me personally,” says Laverty about the plunge and the work of SONJ. “The athletes and also the families of the athletes are getting so much joy out of it.”

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Good Karma: Spotlight on Kula for Karma

An inmate practices yoga during a Kula for Karma class at Hudson County Correctional Center. Photo courtesy of Kula for Karma.

When Tom Filan starts his yoga classes with inmates at Hudson County Correctional Center (HCCC) in Kearny, he often asks, “How is the way you think working for you?” The inmates usually respond with blank stares. That’s when he says, “You’re in jail; how good could it be?” That gets a few laughs.

The 66-old-year Wyckoff resident has taught yoga at HCCC for 5½ years. “We try to get our clients to change the way they think, to be more mindful, to understand unconscious patterns of thinking and compulsive behavior,” Filan explains. “Or simply to be nonreactive, to think consequentially, to not give in to negative urges like taking drugs or violence.” He knows of one inmate who used a breathing exercise to avoid a physical confrontation with another inmate.

The prisoners receive classes through Kula for Karma, a nonprofit based in Franklin Lakes that brings free yoga and meditation to underserved populations who stand to benefit from them the most. Kula for Karma’s classes are funded by the institutions that host them as well as individual donors and other sources. Its mission is backed by science; medical advisors include Dr. Diego Coira, chairman of Hackensack University Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine.

To date, Kula for Karma has served more than 10,000 people through 300 programs; it has more than 1,000 volunteer yoga instructors nationwide.

Yoga instructor Penni Feiner, Kula for Karma’s executive director, joined the organization in 2008, a year after it was founded. The original intention was to provide yoga and meditation to underprivileged groups, including the chronically ill. That mission now includes mental illness, trauma and addiction sufferers. In some cases, physicians write yoga prescriptions. Other times, patients already familiar with the program request it.

Kula for Karma has served a variety of institutions, including the Paterson public school system, Covenant House in Newark, veterans’ groups, drug- and alcohol-recovery programs, and prisons, including the Bergen County Jail.

“When I get to teach and I look over a room full of diverse bodies, sizes, ages… in shavasana [a relaxation pose yoga classes end with], some magic comes over the room,” says Feiner. “These people, who were extraordinarily anxious and fidgeting beforehand, now have found just a little piece of peace…It really is extraordinary, the power of the practice. To make it accessible for everyone, that’s where we want to go.”

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