A time to give thanksWhat the people who help others are grateful for this year

The staff at Absecon Lighthouse, including director of education Stephanie Carr, left, Volunteer Lightkeeper Buddy Grover and Executive Director Jean Muchanic, of Egg Harbor Township, is grateful for funding that allowed them to start a community garden program at the Atlantic City landmark.

The people who run the Absecon Lighthouse in Atlantic City are thankful for more than just escaping the worst of Hurricane Sandy this holiday season.

"The things I'm thankful for all have to do with our community partners," said Jeanne Muchanic, the lighthouse's executive director.

While this is the time of year that many people are thankful for the assistance and programs provided by nonprofit groups throughout southern New Jersey, the people who run those groups also have lists of things they and their organizations are appreciative of.

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In the case of the lighthouse, this year the nonprofit group that operates the landmark entered into a three-year partnership with Atlanticare to develop a community garden on site.

"With their seed money - pun intended - we were able to get irrigation and build 21 garden beds," Muchanic said. She said 17 individuals and restaurants had gardens this year, and she expects more next year.

The garden did flood during Sandy, but the hurricane came at the end of the growing season, and there is plenty of time to replace the salt-soaked soil before next planting season, Muchanic said.

The CRDA was also incredibly helpful, Muchanic said, allowing the group to use a grant that initially intended for an architectural plan for a lifesaving station to be used to repair the roof on the keeper's cottage, which had posed a safety hazard. New neighbor Revel Entertainment chose the lighthouse to be a beneficiary of its Community Giving Nights, and the Atlantic City Special Improvement District is providing landscaping free of charge. The aid has helped the nonprofit reduce its annual deficit from $20,000 last year to $5,000, Muchanic said.

At the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey's Atlantic County office, Executive Director John Emge said his organization is most thankful for a successful merger of seven offices into one organization.

"I'm thankful for volunteers who got involved in the planning process," Emge said. "A representative from each county came together at the table to work through the design we wanted the new organization to take."

He said the merger will make it possible to react to problems more effectively in the region.

"In the hurricane it was very evident," he said, adding that volunteers and aide came from throughout the region to the parts hardest hit. Companies such as Campbell's Soup, Subaru, AT&T and Price Waterhouse, all located in western New Jersey or Philadelphia, pitched in immediately to help the New Jersey shore, he said.

"It is a lot easier because we're around the same dinner table now," Emge said. "It's not as though have to go through formalities to talk to other executive directors."

For Court Appointed Special Advocates of Atlantic and Cape May Counties, based in Somers Point, volunteers are always the ones that make things happen. They are matched with children in the foster care system, and follow their cases closely, advocating for the children's best interests.

This year a group of more experienced volunteers, called Peer Coordinators, with an average of five to eight years experience with CASA, took on more responsibility. They will be overseeing less experienced volunteers, a job previously done by staff members.

"They are going to allow us to serve more children. We're excited about that and thankful," said Karen DeRosa, director of community development.

She said CASA is also grateful that the state has not cut its funding during difficult times.

At Volunteers in Medicine of Cape May County, based in Cape May Court House, volunteer doctors, nurses, and administrative professionals log 12,000 volunteer hours per year, said Executive Director Jacqueline Meiluta.

"Access to specialty care is always difficult for VIM patients, but we have much to be thankful for in 2012 - we honored Dr. Divo Messori, a gastroenterologist who generously gives of his time to our patients, as volunteer Physician of the Year." Other volunteer doctors enabled the group to add specialty clinics for cardiology and nephrology/hypertension, Meiluta said.

Family Promise of Cape May County, which houses homeless families in member churches until they can find permanent housing, was able to purchase a building for its new day center in 2012, said Executive Director Laurie Johnson. "I would say we're thankful for the new day center, for sure, and for a great board of directors that got us to this point." She said one of Family Promise's families was approved for a Habitat for a Humanity house, with construction to begin in 2013.

She is also thankful for donors who made it possible to raise enough money to purchase the building. The group feels so blessed, she said, it is designating $10 for every $30 raised at a Giving Thanks fundraiser Nov. 25 in Cape May towards hurricane relief.

Sheryl Polo, executive director of Family Promise of Ocean County, said she is most thankful for what happened as a result of Hurricane Sandy.

"What I get to see all the time is the generosity and kindness of volunteers," she said. "Other people don't get to see it all the time, and now they are." She said her group placed all five families - with a total of 11 children - that stayed with them in 2012 in permanent housing.

In Cumberland County, Donna Turner, the executive director of AHOME, Inc., which helps low-income families buy renovated homes, said she is most thankful for being able to get 17 families into their own homes in 2012.

The group provides comprehensive pre-purchase counseling, she said, and, until the funding ran out, worked with another 1,000 families to prevent forecloseure using federal programs, she said.

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