It took a matter of 10 minutes for Phil Stafford’s life to turn upside down.
It was 1999.
Hurricane Floyd hit.
“We thought we were safe, but a dam burst at high tide,” Stafford said. “We had to get out fast, so I told my wife, Renay, to get as much as she could off the floor.”
With that, Stafford, his wife and two sons left their apartment in Wallington, never to return to it. For the next six months, the family of four lived in an 8’ x 10’ room at the in-laws.
During that six-month period, Stafford thought he’d get help from FEMA and the Red Cross.
The help never came.
“There’s got to be a better way to do things,” Stafford said. “The Red Cross helps the way they help. But FEMA. The red tape. It was very frustrating.”
Not too long after, Stafford, himself suffering, learned of a shelter in Newark where there were 100+ people in need. He wanted to know what was going on there. He found out, hardly a surprise to anyone, the folks there needed food, clothing, toiletries and other necessities. With what little money he had from painting jobs he did — he’s been a professional home painter for two decades-plus — he started to get supplies needed. But money ran out fast.
He contacted the Center for Food Action directly and began to work with them.
“I love to see the look on people’s faces when you help directly,” he said.
Fast forward to 2015. That year, he connected with a culinary school based in Englewood. At Thanksgiving, with the school, more than 1,000 meals — hefty meals, in fact — were prepared for seniors, shut-ins and others in nine towns over four counties.
It was at this time Stafford started his own 501(c)3 non-profit, known as New Jersey Food & Clothing Rescue. In the last year alone, Stafford and his group, which includes his wife and two board members, offer immediate assistance to those who need help.
When we say immediate, we mean immediate.
On Jan. 5, when a fire broke out on Maple St., Kearny, on one of, if not the single-coldest day of the winter, Stafford and his rescue were on-scene before the Red Cross. They prepared hot soup for the victims and first responders. They had gloves and coats for those who escaped the fire with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
The rescue, Stafford says, relies on local residents to get the word out of disasters or emergencies. In the case of the Maple St. fire, Stafford first heard about it via social media. He and his volunteers jumped into crisis mode immediately by getting into the non-profit’s van (it was purchased used with funds the rescue raises during the course of the year) and heading from Bergen County to Kearny.
Stafford says things really started to pick up a while ago when his group was featured on “Chasing News,” a production of WWOR-TV Channel 9. The rescue accepts the usual donations, cash donations and of course, food donations. They often get donations of repurposed food from places like Wawa, which, last week, gave him more than 200 individually wrapped sandwiches that would otherwise have been thrown out.
Meanwhile, a few years ago, when a massive fire hit a not-yet-complete apartment complex on the Hudson River in Edgewater, the group took a pro-active approach to the fire — he says many non-profits are instead reactive — by heading there with some non-traditional items.
“We went with items we knew people would need,” Stafford said. “When you’re running out of a fire, you grab yourself, your pets, your children — then head out,” he said. “But there are things people forget. So we had phone chargers, we had shoes, we had pet supplies. Think of it — leaving a fire, you may grab your pets, but don’t have the leashes. With so much going on at a fire, we want to do what we can to make a difficult situation easier.”
So where does Stafford keep all the donations he gets? Well, it hasn’t always been easy. But recently, a church in Belleville, at 188 New St., that he’s helped out with donations to its food pantry when the shelves got bare, offered him space for storage.
“They said, ‘You’ve helped us in the past, now we’re going to help you,’” he said. “We’re tailoring the space now.”
Stafford says his goal is to help anyone in crisis — whether it’s caused by unemployment, a disaster, whatever the reason. In fact, since the 501(c)3 began, he’s turned away just one person seeking help — and that was someone who was simply looking to get something for nothing.
He hopes to network with other groups and people in Hudson, Bergen, Essex and Union counties — and elsewhere. With that, he wants restaurateurs and deli owners, or anyone interested in helping with excess food donations that there’s no reason to worry about liability. He says some places are afraid to donate because they worry they might be sued, let’s say, if a person gets sick after eating donated food.
“It can’t happen,” Stafford said. “There’s a Good Samaritan law on the books in New Jersey. Anyone who helps with food donations is clear from liability and cannot be sued. At all.”
Interested in donating or volunteering? Contact Stafford on his mobile phone at 201-747-8706 or visit the outreach’s website at www.njfoodclothingrescue.org.