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Tri-Town News -Front Page- 12/29/04
Woman says her life?s path is working for those in need
Elaine French(Bridges of Peace Board of Directors) has a husband, has raised three sons, has three grandchildren and holds a steady job.

FARRAH MAFFAI staff Elaine French, Lakewood, has worked with the Visitation Roman Catholic Church in Brick on Project Appalachia and now serves as fund-raising chair for a new nonprofit organization, Bridges of Peace.

MIGUEL JUAREZ staff Students in Sayreville carry a box of toys they helped collect for children in Iraq as part of a project with Bridges of Peace.

Elaine French has a husband, has raised three sons, has three grandchildren and holds a steady job.

But somehow, she finds time to do charity work.
?There?s good in every person,? French said.

Seated in her sunny home in the Four Seasons senior community in Lakewood, French recalls how she got started in community service. It all began, she said, with a six-week course she took at her place of worship, the Visitation Roman Catholic Church in Brick.

?I knew that God was expecting more of me. I felt this really, really strongly,? she said.

Soon after, her church was looking for a youth group leader. Although she found it somewhat strange that only young boys signed up to participate, she felt comfortable because she had all sons herself.

?I thought it was unusual until I met their parents,? French said, stating that they were all extraordinary people.

Her first project begins

After some time, the boys in the youth group decided they wanted to start doing charity work. So, she helped them organize a clothing drive to benefit St. Rocco?s Homeless Shelter in Newark. Eventually, this evolved into a toy drive and then the boys decided they wanted to visit the shelter.

?There?s visions of it that I?ll never forget,? French said of the Christmas party that was put together.

She recalled one of the boys picking up a child who started playing with the cross on his neck. The boy took off the cross and gave it to the child.

?When I saw all of this, I knew that this was what I needed to stay with,? French said.

Project Appalachia is born

After the youth group dismantled, the boys? mothers stayed in touch and started a prayer group. It was through this group that Project Appalachia was formed.

?It was a big project that we had in mind,? she said.

They first contacted a church in the Lexington, Ky., archdiocese and got in touch with an outreach group in Wallen?s Creek and a church that ran a grammar school in Harlan.

?They were so needy that they couldn?t even believe we were calling them,? French remembers.

French explained that many people living in the area are out of work since the mines closed down. Many are also living on disability due to black lung disease.

?A lot of people are leaving the region,? she said.

Also, some used to live in shanties, which were washed away in a flood, so now they live in mobile homes provided by the government.

?The older mountain people don?t really mix with the town people. They?re very proud and private,? French said.

But the children are breaking that wall and going to school. So, the prayergroup decided that they wanted to give each child five new outfits and supplies for the school year. They got a list of the children?s names and ages and slowly began telling the congregation at the Visitation Church what they hoped to do.

?The next Sunday, I went to church ? you couldn?t get on the altar ? it was just covered,? French said.

The donations continued to pour in over the next five Sundays until the interior of the old church, which French compared to the size of a gymnasium, was covered with goods to be sent to Kentucky.

Then the group was faced with another challenge ? how would all of the donations be sent to the children?

Luckily, in French?s professional life, she is a senior account manager for Cendant Car Rental Group, which represents Avis and Budget Car Rental Cos. The owner of the Matawan Avis, Maureen Staub, donated a 20-foot truck for them to take to Kentucky. And, a northern New Jersey electricians union paid for another truck.

The night before they left, a big ?loading? party was held. Once they got down to the Appalachian Mountains, they weren?t able to see the people they donated the clothes to. But teenagers who were part of the outreach group there were very hospitable to the teenagers from New Jersey, taking them on a hike.

During 2003 and this year, instead of collecting clothes and supplies as they did in 2002, French said they decided to ask for gift certificates to Wal-Mart or monetary donations. This made it easier to mail the goods to Kentucky, rather than drive them down. Parishioners can still pick something out themselves and ship items down on their own, she said.

French said that in the three years that this project has been running, the 5,000 members of the Visitation Church have sent about $35,000 worth of goods or donations to the people in the Appalachians.

Building Bridges of Peace

Through a women?s prayer group, French met Diane Eleftheriades, of Sayreville. Eleftheriades had an idea to form a nonprofit organization that would reach out to children of war and poverty through music and art ? and she needed help.

?Elaine is willing to do anything that you need her to do,? Eleftheriades said. ?She does her best with any task given to her.?

French became the fund-raising chair and board member of the organization that was started this year. In her efforts to improve her skills in this area, French recently completed a course in nonprofit business management.

Due to her own experience with a recent Support Our Troops drive with her church, Bridges of Peace decided to extend that idea with a toy drive. Through the Sayreville school system, 3,300 toys were collected and sent to Iraq so that soldiers there could extend a peaceful hand to children in the country.

?Children are the same all over the world,? French said. ?Our goal is to bridge peace between the soldiers and the Iraqis.?

The organization wants to continue this project beyond the holiday season, perhaps by collecting school supplies for the children, French said.

?I think that the toy drive was the perfect launch,? French said.

With hope in her voice, French said she believes progress can be made ?if only we could get rid of the hatred that?s been passed down from generation to generation.

?People are dying there every day and we have to let them know that they?re working for a good cause,? she continued. ?We just want love to be the criteria of mankind.?

French said that the overall goal of Bridges of Peace is to touch people through the ?universal language? of art and music. The big project the group is working on right now is a concert at Liberty Park on Sept. 24, 2005.

What has turned out to be a full-day event will include music acts and a keynote speaker, Vassula Ryden, who has spoken before the United Nations. French said they want the event to be nondenominational. So, while some Christian rock groups have been booked, it is meant to be a spiritual event for everyone.

Hopefully people will learn more about what they can do for others and bring that knowledge back to their own communities, French said.

In the meantime, smaller fund-raising events will take place to prepare for the concert. The group is working on holding a teen night at Club Abyss in Sayreville and a 5K Run sometime in the spring.

?The women in Bridges of Peace all have a common vision,? French said. While sometimes their ideas seem daunting, she said they are able to give a lot up to their faith.

?It is a slow process and we do have to be patient with that,? she said. So, while ideas such as setting up food banks in Bangladesh or tutoring children in impoverished countries may seem far off, French said it?s all about name recognition.

And it?s as simple as giving people a cause they can sink their teeth into.

?They want to see the end,? she said. ?They want to know the toy they shopped for will end up in a child?s hand.?

A path is found

Eleftheriades said that French has made charity work one of the priorities in her life.

?It is a privilege to her to do community service,? she said.

With all these projects going on outside of her work day, French said she is looking forward to retirement ? but only so she can commit herself to community service full time.

?I think I have a clearer direction for my life,? French said.

Link to article in the Tri-Town News Paper...

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