In the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s destruction of the New Jersey coastline, junior Matt Palmisano did not get much sleep, he said.
“My mind and my heart were back home,” Palmisano said. “I tried to put on a good face for class and everything, but I really just wanted to go back as soon as possible.”
Palmisano grew up an hour away from the coast, in West Caldwell, N.J., but his family also has a house in Normandy Beach. His family visits the beach house for Thanksgiving, part of winter break, some weekends and for the majority of the summer, he said.
Palmisano also has grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins who live primarily in Normandy, he said.
Palmisano was on duty for the University of Richmond emergency medical services team when the storm hit Monday night, he said.
“I started getting all these texts from back home,” he said. “People were asking all these questions about what was going on with the storm and what was going on with other people in the area.
“So many people lost power back there that some of my friends and family had to communicate back through me to tell them what was happening on the news.”
It wasn’t until two days later that Palmisano decided he needed to act, he said. He had sent out an e-mail Wednesday morning to anyone in his address book from the university and had planned to leave for home Thursday afternoon with whatever supplies he could gather, he said.
“I had to do something,” Palmisano said. “Being a person who wants to help and not be able to do it is just a terrible feeling.
“I was making decisions off the whim of my hat. I had talked to a few shelters in the Normandy area and was going to try to bring back specifically whatever they needed.”
Palmisano did not expect what happened next, he said. By the time he left his noon class on Wednesday, he already had close to 30 email responses and even more text messages – many from people he didn’t know – wanting to contribute to the effort.
People offered to donate water, nonperishable foods, personal hygiene items, cold-weather clothes and energy bars and drinks for the first responders, he said.
Daniel Fabian, associate dean of Richmond College, helped to mobilize support from Richmond College. One suggestion Fabian made was for Palmisano to hold off on his commute back to New Jersey.
“I was a little concerned that he was going up too soon,” Fabian said. “There were still issues with gas shortages, traffic and power outages in the area.”
After talking with his friends, parents and Fabian, Palmisano said he had decided to postpone the mission.
“Originally, it was going to be a 24-hour mission,” he said. “But, this situation isn’t going anywhere. People are going to need this for a long time. When we do it, we want to make sure it’s done right without any obstacles.”
Fabian has since set aside a room in the Westhampton Center to store supplies for Palmisano and has set up a monetary index through the university if people decide to donate money.
“Now he doesn’t need to be concerned with taxes,” Fabian said. “He’s not a non-profit and the university is a non-profit so it made sense for the money to be distributed through us.”
Tyler Betzhold, a UR chef, said many members of the catering department had donated food and clothes. The produce company has contributed five crates of bananas.
“We’ve had a few hurricanes thrown at us in Virginia,” Betzhold said. “So I feel like we can all empathize with the situation to a certain extent.”
The immensity of the campus response had not been surprising, Betzhold said.
“I grew up in Ohio and around Ohio State,” Betzhold said. “That doesn’t even compare to how the campus community here is in touch with its surrounding. It really is an impressive group.”
Junior Lucas Virnig, Palmisano’s roommate, believes social media has played a huge role in the campus-wide efforts, he said.
“I think the hashtag, #URforNJ, has been helpful on Twitter,” Virnig said. “I’ll post pictures of things that people are dropping in our apartment and commenters seem to be responsive.”
“I was at a sport club meeting the other night and someone just randomly brought up Matt,” Virnig said. “You think, ‘Jeez, this kid is everywhere right now.’”
Palmisano said he wasn’t sure whether he would leave before Thanksgiving or hold off, but was confident he’d continue to accept donations until the end of the semester. The campus response has been astonishing, he said.
“I think finally realizing I couldn’t fit everything into my Jeep was a very cool feeling,” Palmisano said. “We’re going to have to rent a U-Haul whenever I decide to head back.”
Contact reporter Scott Himelein at firstname.lastname@example.org