Tricia Hexter's Michigan home has turned into a Hurricane Sandy donation center, taken over by boxes and bags of coats, shoes, clothes, books, toys, toiletries and more with a whole system for loading it up, moving it out, and getting help where it's needed here on the East Coast.
Hexter moved to the Grosse Pointe, MI two years ago from Port Jefferson. It's just one place over here where Hexter has friends and family who have lost everything or almost everything. Breezy Point, Staten Island, Shelter Island and other nearby towns are also destination points for the dozens of boxes that have left Grosse Pointe in the days since Sandy blew ashore Nov. 1.
Every day since the storm blew through, Hexter's home has become a mini version of a Red Cross relief effort—looking a bit like a storm set in there too. Hexter's collection, which has taken over her dining room, living room, hallway and foyer, has moved fast and with precision because of her direct line between people there who need help and people here who want to give it.
With the help of friends, she has filled boxes with duffle bags, backpacks and other containers that hold the specific requests from the people in the places where she grew up, taught school and started her own family. Donations are coming from Grosse Pointe friends, acquaintances and strangers. They've given money and time to help with shipping, searched their homes for the right clothes sizes and even packed a special box with an iPod, diary, clothes and other things for Bella, an 11-year-old whose bedroom and everything in it was under gasoline-tainted floodwater. Hexter's dentist, Dr. Mark Kusch, donated toothbrushes, toothpaste and mouthwash. One local resident had his company take care of shipping.
Call it the "Tricia Hexter Pays It Forward Relief Effort." As of Friday, she had sent out 127 boxes—the post office in the Village knows her story—to 22 families and 54 people.
Hexter, a mom of three who's married to Craig Hexter, says she's not surprised at how people have stepped up. She was the recipient of similar generosity after she was diagnosed with breast cancer about a year ago. During chemo, which caused her to go into heart failure, and surgeries, people brought meals, took care of children, treated her to a spa day and more.
And as she spends every day and every night filling the requests for help that keep pouring in and making sure each package is special and complete, she is trying not to think about her next surgery on Nov. 27.
"I just want to stress how this community came through in leaps and bounds—people taking boxes to send, donating money, going shopping," she says. "Seeing what everybody did for me, it wasn't shocking that they did all this. I was really taken care of, especially for living here only a year.
"This place is amazing. I say that all the time," she says.
With her surgery approaching, she is now in "exit strategy," and trying to send out the final boxes by Sunday. She is running out of money for shipping but knows something will come through.
While her heart is in New York, her mind is on getting through the next surgery.
"I'm in exit strategy. I can't take any more donations at this point," she says. "This cancer gig is really getting in my way.
"Every day I get new names for my list and every day I get more people coming to help."
That's why she can't help but plan for Phase 2 once she's recovered—Christmas.
What she envisions is filling stockings with gift cards and small gifts and she's hoping for donations to cover it.
"I would do really cool Christmas presents that would be awesome. Every bit of what anyone sends would go to this. I would send them pictures and tell them where it's going," she says. "They're still going to need so much. Half of them probably won't even have homes by Christmas. … There are people who have lost everything. Insurance is not paying to replace it. They need everything."
Whether Phase 2 works out or not, what's happened so far is more than she could have hoped for when she posted requests for donations on Facebook the day after the storm flooded, burned and destroyed neighborhoods and just hours after friends and family began posting the pictures that are a person's worst nightmare.
Word started coming Thursday that packages were arriving.
"I'm getting all kinds of messages now from everybody who's getting their boxes. It's so exciting," she says. "My friend's boys are sleeping with the stuffed animals we sent. … The girls are having fun with make-up bags."
One message of gratitude, "I'm sobbing. I can't thank you enough."
It would be acceptable for the donations to go in boxes and be done with it, but Hexter's packages are personalized and customized, based on just what her friends and family members tell her is needed. Which is almost everything.
On the door of her dining room hangs notebook paper filled with names and sizes of adults and children who have nothing. She fills those requests and then some by making complete outfits, head to toe, by throwing in books, markers, toys, whatever might soften the fear or the loss.
And almost all of it goes into a duffle bag or backpack, not just a box.
"I don't want all their things to just be in some box."
Being a former teacher, there are many books in the backpacks and bags for children.
"I just picture the kids going through them and it makes me so happy.
Even as she smiles at the thought her mind goes to what's changed and been lost, "like the places I went to as a kid that just aren't there anymore."
Friend and box packer Leah Lewis of Grosse Pointe Park has been at Hexter's home helping almost every day.
"She's put so much care and thought in to each and every one of these boxes," Lewis says. "It's just above and beyond."