In South Jersey, a mission to help those in need

Michele Gambone (right) and Jeanne Rodrigues sort donations that came in on the charity’s Facebook page.

It started as a personal mission to rescue a pregnant homeless woman who was living in a minivan in Salem County with her husband and their five children when frigid temperatures gripped the region a little more than a year ago.

Michele Gambone, a manager at a Sewell-based hydrographic engineering firm, began recruiting volunteers to help her make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for homeless families. Now, the volunteers make as many as 1,500 sandwiches a week to distribute to families who live out on the streets of Camden and Philadelphia.

Gambone also runs a donation center inside a former Blackwood, Camden County, bank that is bulging with racks of clothes, piles of blankets, and an assortment of hats and gloves. Canned goods are stored in the old vault.

The homeless woman, who was eight months pregnant, came to her attention through a friend who had been volunteering with her to help rescue abandoned and neglected dogs. Gambone, 41, went to Carney's Point to see if she could help the woman and ended up paying for a hotel room to get her and her family out of the cold. A week later, a local church stepped in to arrange longer-term shelter for the family, she said.

But 10 other homeless families in Carney's Point also needed help, Gambone said.

"I really didn't know how bad it was and didn't understand why these people were homeless," she said in an interview. She couldn't look away. Gambone turned to social media to request donations and began collecting clothing, blankets, and baby items.

"My living room was filling up," the Westville resident said, explaining why her next move was to rent a barn in Deptford, in December 2014, to store goods that were pouring in.

The Unforgotten Haven, a no-frills charity that operates only with volunteers, was created.

The Haven, as it is nicknamed, became a bustling place, she said. Volunteers showed up to help sort the mountain of black trash bags that were stuffed with clothes. They worked on impromptu assembly lines that began filling brown bags with PB&J sandwiches and fruit snacks for the homeless. "It started with 200 sandwiches a week. . . . Other groups joined in and dropped them off and now it's 1,500 a week," she said.

In April, Gambone had relocated to the former bank, which at 2,000 square feet, was twice the size of the barn. Still, she had to rent two storage bins to hold the overflow.

Her volunteers are glad to donate their time tackling the work at the Haven. "I'm so blessed. I was looking so hard for something to do to help," said Pat Flannery, one of 40 regular volunteers who work there. "This place helps everyone, from babies to adults." The middle-school English teacher from Washington Township smiled as she packed shirts and pajamas into bins organized by size and gender on a cold January night.

When a needy veteran stopped in one day and said he needed size 4E boots, the volunteers chipped in to buy him a pair because they couldn't find that size among the donations, she recalled. "We are so happy to be here to help."

But when Gambone first leased the bank, and the rent doubled, her husband had reservations. He told her she was "crazy" and said he was concerned about the undertaking. He changed his mind, she said, when "a lot of miracles happened." The first was a donation from the nonprofit Peter J. Haller Family Foundation, based in Wantagh, N.Y., she said. Jeanne Rodrigues, a member of the foundation who lives in West Berlin, Camden County, came across the Unforgotten Haven's Facebook page and offered to pay 11 months of the rent, Gambone said.

Rodrigues said in an interview that she had been impressed with Gambone's willingness to devote her own time and money to help the homeless and her refusal to take any salary. "I think of her as grass roots. . . . I kept coming around to see if she was legitimate and she sucked me in because she has so much energy," said Rodrigues, who also volunteers at the Haven.

Gambone said she "didn't expect this to grow this quickly . . . all in one year." People are generous, she said, because they "want their donations to be given away free to families in need - not sold."

"I always just wanted to help other people," Gambone said when asked why she is willing to spend as much as 30 hours a week at the Haven. "I don't have an extravagant house, but I've been blessed 10 times over and I just believe I am supposed to do this," she said.

Lori Faunt, a volunteer from Winslow Township, said she was drawn to the Haven after reading the stories about the homeless on its Facebook page. "I was crying at all the posts I was seeing and wanted to help," she said. Faunt said she enjoys being part of the team.

Not content to provide goods to the homeless and low-income families, Gambone also reaches out to families whose houses are destroyed in fires. She said she is on call 24 hours a day to open the Haven's doors so they can freely take what they need to get by.

The Haven also has become a depository for companies and consignment shops looking to unload items they can't sell or don't want.

Gambone said a company that had shipped 3,000 "ugly Christmas sweaters with gnomes" last month ended up donating them when the buyer refused delivery. Her volunteers rented a U-Haul to retrieve the bundle and are now distributing them to the homeless with the sandwiches. "It doesn't matter if they're ugly sweaters - if they will keep someone warm, I won't decline them," she said.

Gambone is offering to give them to any charitable organizations that agree to give them away for free to the needy. She said the Haven also partners with churches, schools, and scouting and nonprofit groups to drop off sandwiches and clothing to the homeless in Camden and Philadelphia on Sundays.

She said she works at the Haven on her lunch hours, on weekends, and in the evenings. She has two stepsons, one in high school, who helps at the Haven, and one in college. "I'm a regular ordinary person," she said, adding that her deep faith in God motivates her to do acts of kindness.

The logo for the Haven, which appears on its sign, is that of two outstretched helping hands that turn into angel wings. She said the Haven's volunteers could easily be called angels.

Her husband, Paul Gambone, a hydrographic surveyor, said her strong drive to help the homeless began after she spent three years rescuing dogs. She had worked with the SPCA and helped find homes for neglected pets. The couple adopted four of them and now have five dogs.

The pregnant homeless woman she met a year ago had opened her eyes to the suffering of the homeless and started her on a new path, he said.

"When she first started it, we didn't realize how big it would be," Gambone said. "She put her heart and soul into it and helped a lot of people. It all started with a little barn in Deptford."

856-779-3224 @JanHefler