ATLANTIC CITY - Sharon Miller thought the woman who walked into her store last month looked like an angel.
A slight redhead wearing a pink sundress and straw hat is a sight not normally seen at Dave's Grocery on Virginia and Arctic avenues.
Miller then heard the woman's plan: to turn the overgrown lot next door into something positive for the community. That's when she was convinced Saranne Rothberg just might be an angel after all, she said.
Rothberg, 46, never lived in Atlantic City year-round, but she always had a soft spot for the city where she happily spent her childhood summers. Now, the Bergen County woman wants to show children of this neighborhood the Atlantic City she once knew. The one where she could walk the Boardwalk alone without worry. Where her father sold Fudgy Wudgy ice-cream bars on the beach and her grandfather owned the only powder blue jitney, because his limited English caused him to pick the wrong shade.
A citation for uncut grass brought Rothberg back two weeks ago.
But when she arrived, it wasn't foliage that had overrun the lot her family has owned for decades: It was the leftovers of illegal activity. Hypodermic needles, beer bottles and condoms littered the area. There were mattresses and what looked to be a makeshift drug bar.
The next day, in the pink dress and straw hat that caught Miller's eye, Rothberg started picking up what others left behind. She garnered quite a bit of attention.
Neighbors and passers-by wanted to know what this "white chick in a tea outfit" was doing, she said. "One by one, people just started to help."
One woman got garbage bags. Another, who Rothberg later was told is a known drug addict, even offered to watch the property.
She talked to residents about what they would like to see here. A vision formed when many mentioned a playground. Her journey led her to Dave's, where she met Miller.
"She explained how she owns the vacant lot and someone was trashing it and dumping furniture," Miller recalled.
"Say no more," Miller told her. "I have three big sons. We'll go out there and we'll take care of it."
Virginia Avenue has always been Miller's home, so to have someone want to help bring something positive was exactly what she wanted to hear.
"She walked me to City Hall," Rothberg said.
Holding hands, Miller reported.
"She's just that pure, that innocent," Miller said. "She was just so proud to tell everybody she met a new friend in Atlantic City, and to see anyone who could possibly be an asset to her."
Rothberg has seen many people she considers assets since her mission began.
This week alone, she found a lawyer and an architect who promised pro bono help. And Councilman George Tibbitt has been brought on board. He informed her Tuesday of a bonus: If the lot becomes a playground, that makes it a drug-free zone.
"If someone is caught doing drugs in the area, the fines are even bigger," he said. "That actually helps bring about the change."
Rothberg's is a rare story in Atlantic City, Tibbitt acknowledged.
"I've never seen anybody come forward with their own personal land and offer it for something like this," he said.
"It feels like Atlantic City really wants to embrace something good and positive," Rothberg said. "Even though I'm not physically in Atlantic City, people are just moving forward on behalf of the whole community."
Tibbitt has asked Planning Director Bill Crane to put together a checklist of what is needed to make the playground a reality.
Since Rothberg pretty much checked everything off her own to-do list, a new one is perfectly timed.
Not that she's worried it won't happen. For her, it's already done. She said she already sees the grand opening, the children playing, people celebrating.
"I believe that things first become reality in your consciousness," she said. "It's just a matter of logistics to become a physical reality. Now we're just going through the logistics."
Rothberg already has plans for when the project is complete, including a basketball clinic with the Harlem Wizards. The team's president, Todd Davis, is a good friend.
"When she calls for something like this, we usually say yes," Davis said.
"To me, 'no' is 'not yet,'" Rothberg says.
Her father taught her to always ask: Says who? "Asked politely," she stressed.
That's what she asked when she received a diagnosis of cancer 10 years ago, and was told she had less than five years to live.
Her father was worried, but she turned his saying on him: "Says who?" she told him of her predicted demise. In 2002, she was deemed cancer-free.
Now, she runs Comedy Cures, which she began while undergoing chemo in 1999. The group functions on humor as therapy.
Rothberg's own positive outlook seems contagious.
"I needed to be in her presence," said Miller, who has been mourning her father - David Rowell - since his death last year. "She gave me a strength I have not felt in years."
In turn, Miller is using her own love of her neighborhood to keep watch over the land now in transition. She looks forward to seeing children back on the street playing, not hidden in their homes due to the criminal element outside.
"It will let them know that somebody does care about that block," Miller said.
"There's just such a collective enthusiasm about not only keeping the area clean now, but a commitment to really keep it safe once it is a playground," Rothberg said, adding that city police officers have promised their help. "When a few people get excited about something it really reverberates."
"Of course the whole community can take back this lot from drug dealers," she said, once again invoking the question her father always told her to ask: "Drug dealers? Says who?"
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If you want to help
Those who would like to offer help in the effort to build a playground in the empty lot can reach Saranne Rothberg at 888-300-3990, ext. 222, or e-mail: SaranneR@ComedyCures.org