HAZLET, NJ – While carrying flags in their hands and backpacks loaded with nonperishable food, locals embarked on a three-mile journey on Saturday, Nov. 22 to donate items to the RAINE Foundation. With the holidays arriving, the Raritan Bay Ruckers and The Phoenix teamed up to organize a Thanksgiving Ruck/Walk Food Drive, combining their love of exercise with their passion for helping.

The event began at 10 a.m. outside the North Centerville Fire Company. Members from local organizations like The RAINE Foundation, Hazlet’s Hope Network, the Hazlet P.B.A. and RE/MAX High Point participated. The RAINE Foundation is a Hazlet-based nonprofit that provides essential items to families in need. (You can sponsor a local family for the holidays with RAINE, email here.)

Rucking is a form of walking that involves wearing a backpack filled with weights. Raritan Bay Ruckers’ founder Bob Bouthillette who is also a U.S. Navy veteran, said rucking is very important to the military.

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“When we carry that pack, it symbolizes that we share each other's burdens and share each other's pains,” Bouthillette said.

He has been rucking for four years now, and created Raritan Bay Ruckers in August.

“I thought, ‘Well it works really well in the veteran community, so what about our regular community, which is hurting right now, especially with this pandemic?’” Bouthillette said.

Raritan Bay Ruckers also tries to raise awareness for addiction, depression and PTSD, disorders that affect many veterans.

The Phoenix, a nationwide organization, shares a similar mission. The nonprofit promotes sobriety by hosting free, live-streamed events from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, including some in person. Most classes focus on physical activity, like yoga, dancing and meditation. As long as somebody remains sober for 48 hours, they are welcome to join the class, making them a member of The Phoenix.

Program Manager Christopher Spallina, who represents the nonprofit’s New Jersey branch, struggled with substance abuse disorder for over a decade. He has been sober for over two years, and is thankful for The Phoenix.

“I have found a place where I feel a part of, with no judgement,” Spallina said. “I feel like I can be myself and always be completely safe.”

The Phoenix’s classes don’t just apply to those with a history of substance abuse, but also to those looking for sober events.

“Alcohol is so socially acceptable,” Spallina said. “On a Friday night, it seems like everybody wants to go out drinking.”

Hazlet resident Ralph Lara has always lived his life substance free, and enjoys attending The Phoenix’s classes. Spallina said part of the nonprofit’s mission is to reduce the stigma around addiction by bringing people together, whether they suffer from substance abuse or not. Lara agrees.

“I don’t look at somebody because of their issues and say, ‘You know, this is a bad person,’” Lara said. “Maybe things they do, because of their issues, could be bad, but you don’t just throw a person away because of that.”

The Phoenix and the Raritan Bay Ruckers plan on hosting more philanthropic rucks together in the near future. 

“Wherever the need is, we’re going to be there,” Bouthillette said.

On Friday, Nov. 27, The Phoenix is inviting people to play kickball at the Beers Street Fields in Hazlet at 10 a.m. If you’d like to donate to The Phoenix, please click here.  Sign up for free daily news for Hazlet and Keyport . Choose free daily news here.