By Rachel Harvey
Eight years after Hurricane Irene struck the eastern coast of the United States, Bridget Nkatta-Abongwa, DNP, APN-C, remembers the devastation and destruction the brutal storm caused. A Family Nurse Practitioner at Penn Medicine Princeton Health’s Occupational Health program, Nkatta-Abongwa was impacted by the hurricane when her church flooded. “About 80 members from another church came over and helped us fix everything,” she said. “It was really incredible to see so many people coming together and giving their time.”
Those volunteers were members of the Love Your Neighbor outreach, a community mission program organized by Sayre Woods Bible Church in Old Bridge, New Jersey. The program helps the elderly, single mothers, and disabled individuals with physical home repairs and needed home supplies. Nkatta-Abongwa joined the group in 2015 and noticed that funding — provided only by donations received by the church — could help further the program’s reach. “I love serving in the community,” she said. “I enjoy helping people get on the right path, which can indirectly help their health. Sometimes you see people living in unsafe conditions and reaching out your hand really feels like the right thing to do. Every little bit does help.”
Church attendees volunteer their time twice a year in the Spring and Fall. Efforts have benefitted communities in Middlesex County as well as areas outside of New Jersey that have faced devastation from natural disasters. The group made numerous trips to rebuild New Orleans and Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Seven years later, in the days following Hurricane Sandy, Love Your Neighbor distributed food and supplies to families impacted by the storm. And for several months following the hurricane, the Sayre Woods Bible Church gymnasium was transformed into a storage and distribution facility for the food, household products, and cleaning supplies that had been collected for those in need.
A collaboration between the Love Your Neighbor outreach program and a Penn Medicine CAREs grant has made funding available for additional supplies and resources needed to provide assistance to vulnerable populations in communities served by Penn Medicine Princeton Health.
One of the things that drove Nkatta-Abongwa to apply for the grant was that she saw the potential to help more people in need but felt that a lack of funding was limiting the program’s reach. She explained that after working with the group firsthand, she wanted to do more. “I do different breast cancer walks every year and donate my time in other ways, it’s just something I do without thinking. But Love Your Neighbor is something very special.”
“It started small, but the need was so enormous and the desire to help more people kept growing,” she said. She explained that new equipment would help volunteers complete home repairs and assist with cleaning. “When someone cleans the floors with a broom versus a vacuum, it takes twice as long. Volunteers are spending their whole day helping, and it’s a lot to ask of people. Better equipment can make their work easier, giving the group more time to help others and providing an incentive for new volunteers to join the group.”
Nkatta-Abongwa recalled volunteering through the program to help a couple that was overjoyed to receive assistance. “There were many home improvements needed in the house. We spent several hours fixing things, cleaning up, and going to the hardware store for needed supplies. I was amazed at how much we had completed; you wouldn’t think it was possible. They were so touched that they had tears of joy.”
The couple weren’t the only ones that were inspired by the day’s outcome. The whole group felt a sense of accomplishment that day, Nkatta-Abongwa said. “It wasn’t just about helping them around the house, but also connecting emotionally. It’s not something you can buy with money.”
Providing emotional support and social contact is an important part of the program, Nkatta-Abongwa said. “One act at a time can make a difference. You make someone’s life better when you give without expecting things.”