Teen siblings raise $26K for NJ EMS Task Force, hospitals

Drew and Heather Paglia launched a fundraising organization to provide meals and PPE to front-line workers in the COVID-19 pandemic


Mike Kinney
NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.

MILLSTONE, N.J. — Millstone siblings Drew and Heather Paglia cannot wait to use a portion of the funds raised by their recently launched non-profit foundation to provide a nice meal for a large gathering of the New Jersey Emergency Medical Service Task Force.

The snag there, however, is that the NJEMSTF also cannot wait.

This all-volunteer team of more than 200 EMS providers has been so busy and so widely dispersed throughout the state in response to the coronavirus and other recent developments, members have not been able to gather together en masse to revel for a few hours in the Paglia’s generosity, made possible by donations received through their 5Help.org.

But that will not stop these two determined teens from continuing in their efforts to express gratitude to these brave front-liners with some nourishment and, ultimately, with something even more valuable to the Task Force than a few tasty meals. Namely, personal protective equipment (PPE).

“Their work with the Task Force started two weeks ago, but because they’re so busy (the NJEMSTF), it’s been hard to find a group that’s together right now for a period of time,” said Cindy Paglia, the mother of 16-year-old Drew and 13-year-old Heather. ”When the Task Force gets called, they need to activate.”

Hmm, that sounds an awful lot like Drew and Heather, who activated themselves March 24 by launching a GoFundMe page that satisfied the dual function of supporting local small businesses in and around their Monmouth County community as well as providing snacks and meals for medical personnel in area hospitals, senior care facilities and to others in need.

Since then, Drew and Heather have been juggling their remote schoolwork with this volunteer endeavor that is occupying some seven or eight hours of time each day as they collect donations, identify recipients, coordinate delivery and send personal notes of thanks to every donor – whether it was $5 (hence, 5Help), $100 or more.

Soon, the NJEMSTF may have to send one or two medics to treat the Paglia kids for hand cramps. Since March 24, 5Help.org has received just over $26,000 from 800 donors.

And yet still personal notes.

“It takes a good chunk of the day and it can be a lot sometimes, but that’s okay,” Drew said. “Our hearts are so big we won’t stop. Just helping other people is what makes us continue.”

There is joy in helping all who can benefit from their foundation, the siblings say, but a special dose of satisfaction when it is directed to first responders. Particularly to those – such as the NJEMSTF members – who invest their time and expertise and also risk their own well-being with no monetary compensation.

“It makes me feel great to help people who are helping other people,” Heather said. “We didn’t realize how grateful they were going to be. That made us feel great.”

Even though the NJEMSTF has not been able to enjoy the work of 5Help.org just yet, every member appreciates the care, the time and the sweat equity being expended by the Paglia kids.

“Drew and Heather are simply amazing. They noticed a problem, they reacted and they created a system that makes it easy for others to help,” said Mike Bascom, president of the Task Force. “We’re proud of them and excited to partner with them in raising funds to help men and women who are responding to emergencies throughout the state and around the clock.”

Drew and Heather recognized that need in the first days of our statewide lockdown; schools were closed (as of March 13) and non-essential businesses forced to cease operation. And even though food establishments could no longer offer dine-in options, at least some could stay afloat by offering pickup and delivery service.

So, with their initial Double Power Donations program, Heather and Drew could bolster local business and feed hospital staff all at once. They started the GoFundMe Page, quickly raised several thousand dollars and provided meals (then gift cards for meals) to such facilities as Centrastate Medical Center in Freehold, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in both New Brunswick and Rahway, and St. Peter’s Medical Center in New Brunswick.

“The idea was the make the donations work to help more than just one,” Cindy Paglia said. “It stated as a local effort trying to support small businesses. They would make food donations to the hospitals; that was the first point of contact.”

The siblings project was off to a modest start and then gained appreciable momentum when the two were featured with host Steve Doocy on a segment of Fox & Friends on April 8. Donations began pouring in from all parts of the country, which was great.

Problem was that GoFundMe provided limited payment options and also revealed no contact information about the donor to Drew and Heather. How could they personally thank these people?

With startup funding from their parents (Andy is the dad), the dynamic Paglia duo created 5Help.org as an official nonprofit and filed for 501c3 status, which is pending. That makes all current donations to their site tax deductible. And now payments can be made with credit card, PayPal, Venmo or even by check.

Aside from creating their own far-reaching nonprofit while under stay-at-home orders and still responsible for math and English assignments, Heather and Drew are pretty typical teenagers.

Heather, a student at the Hun School in Princeton, enjoys playing basketball, tennis and lacrosse. Drew, three days away from completing his sophomore year at the Lawrenceville School, ran cross-country for the Big Red last fall and wrestles at Elite Wrestling in Jackson. He has hopes of attending Princeton to study finance.

What was not typical about these two firebrands of benevolence is that neither had any social media exposure up until they began the foundation. Cindy was never much for it herself and saw no real value in it for her children.

That was, until those platforms became invaluable tools by which to drive donors to their website. You can now find 5Help.org on Facebook and Instagram, and Drew has opened a Twitter account.

“It literally was a whole new learning experience for us,” Cindy said. “I realized as a parent I had to let go on the social media, but not before I gave a few directives: Whatever you put out there is permanent. Be careful of what you’re doing. Stay away from negative people, negative comments. And try to do something good with it.”

“At first it was really challenging, but we figured it out,” said Drew of their social media plunge. “I think now we’re pretty good at it.”

One of the things they have gotten pretty good at, unfortunately, is understanding that once you punch your ticket to the virtual world, you are not always going to solicit every person’s warmest sentiments, no matter how noble the intentions.

Soon after the project began, the Paglias posted a photograph of them outside one of the food establishments from which gift cards were purchased. They took no offense to the owner’s tossing a turkey into the air for the photo op, but at least one person did and forwarded a rather condemning email about it.

“We took the photo down and wrote a letter of apology because we realized it was wrong,” Drew said. “The next day, the guy (who complained) donated $100. Since then, we’ve tried to learn from our feedback and continue to grow and help people.”

Due to the rapid growth of 5Help.org, Drew and Heather are seeking the assistance of others with that volunteer spirit. They hoped to enlist the support of friends and classmates at their respective schools, but found that to be difficult with everyone away from school since the middle of March.

“They’re trying to get a movement of volunteers,” Cindy said. “They don’t want it to be just about the two of them. That was never their intention. They want to help the businesses and also those who help others.”

The whole idea behind the 5Help.org name is based upon invoking the assistance of others.

“It’s a concept of donating five dollars and sharing it with five people and trying to get them to donate five dollars, as well,” Drew said.

While Heather and Drew wait for volunteers, they can bask in the praise they have received so far from such celebrities as Point Pleasant Boro soccer legend Christie Pearce Rampone, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and two-time Women’s World Cup winner, and former New Jersey Devils hockey great Ken Daneyko.

Drew and Heather learned about the NJEMSTF mission from family friend and fellow Millstone resident Steve Caunt, who is a Task Force member. He introduced the siblings to other members, and they shared some surprisingly unfortunate stories about the outdated condition of PPE and the difficulty they faced in securing any new equipment.

“When we saw they weren’t being recognized for their work and not getting any of the stuff that they needed, we knew we had to help,” Drew said. “Mr. Joe Anderson (NJEMSTF treasurer) was saying that he was putting on masks and he broke three of them. He checked the expiration date and it said 2007. It’s really sad and we wanted to put a stop to that and help them out.”

Obtaining PPE was an almost impossible venture at the beginning of the pandemic because organizations, municipalities, states even, were basically bidding against one another for the same products. A tremendous logjam still exists, which has 5Help.org in a holding pattern for PPE purchases as well as a well-deserved meal for the Task force crew.

Major problem? Nah, barely a bump in the road for these proud and persistent teenagers.

“We’re going to turn 5Help into a platform that will help in all kinds of situations; could be natural or man-made disasters, and we could help get relief for that area,” Drew said. “Or, it could be something as simple as helping to stock food banks to feed the poor across America.

“After COVID is over, we’re going to continue to grow 5Help and try to get grants with our 501c3 status and continue to grow it and try to help as many people as possible. We’re in this for the long haul.”

Hey, little sis, anything to add on that rather ambitious topic?

“I agree with Drew.” Heather said. “We’re going to keep this going.”

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©2020 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.

 

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