"HELPING HANDS" PROVIDE RESPITE SUPPERS IN ROCHELLE PARK

Since Tropical Storm Floyd passed through the Bergen County community of Rochelle Park, Linda Reichert and the members of the Church of the Sacred Heart Helping Hands Ministry have prepared a nightly respite supper for 70 families.

Their weekly "to do" list would challenge even the most organized manager -- daily bakery runs and "food rescues," visits to produce farms for fresh vegetables, sorting donated canned goods from perishables, managing cash donations, menu planning, coordinating large kitchen donations, transporting extra supplies to other area soup kitchens, and running a food pantry 6 days a week. Yet Reichert makes it look easy, and enthusiastically shares the credit with her volunteer staff members and other area churches who "…do it all with a smile and an open heart."

"We could write an instruction book on how to respond to a disaster," she mused to a recent visitor. Reichert and her family are flood survivors who were evacuated by boat – she describes the experience as a "nightmare," but praises the emergency responders who rescued them. Afterward, Reichert walked through the town to look at the damage with Pastor Lewis Papera and knew that a lot of recovery work lied ahead – "…almost everyone in town was as affected as I was."

A huge "Helping Hands" quilt decorates one wall of the Sacred Heart lower church hall. The kitchen, dining, and food storage areas are clean, neat, and orderly. Staff members schedule their agendas and tasks for the day. All of this belies the storm-ravaged homes and businesses nearby; Rochelle Park was one of the hardest hit communities in Bergen County. The Helping Hands Ministry, which normally operates a food pantry on Saturday mornings, expanded its operations to meet the needs of community members who might spend up to twelve hours a day cleaning up and rebuilding – serving not only chicken soup, but "chicken soup for the soul."

"The suppers have become more than just physical nourishment – people relax and share what’s going on in their lives and it helps their emotional recovery to know that they are not alone in their experiences," Reichert explains. "People stay and talk long after dinner is over, and over the course of time, we’ve seen despair turn to hope – we’ve even seen the positive changes in our neighbors’ facial expressions."

The process of rebuilding continues in Rochelle Park, where at nightly church suppers, strangers have become friends; and where community members have discovered that their own spirit and determination is stronger than the flood waters which threatened to destroy them.