NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - A longtime local resident and community activist, Brian Gardner, has worn many hats as he’s found ways to be involved with the city.
Soon after graduating high school, he found a job as a maintenance worker at the New Brunswick Free Public library, where he worked his way up to children’s services, where he mentored hundreds of youth.
And then five years ago, he co-founded the Recognizing Inner-City Struggle Empower Network (RISEN), a non-profit to help troubled youth in New Brunswick and put them in touch with services they need.
But now, the lifelong Central Jersey resident has a GoFundMe page set up to help with his daily expenses, after Gardner’s found life throwing him one curveball after another.
Gardner, 31, contracted bacterial meningitis in 2008, and lost all the hearing in his left ear and 70 percent in his right ear.
Over the years, while working at the library, his infection led to diabetes, and in June 2017, he was put on six-month medical leave. Things started to look up when he was set to go back to work at the end of last year.
Fate would have it that just before New Year’s Eve, Gardner had to be rushed to the hospital for a partial amputation of his foot.
The GoFundMe, as of Feb. 2, raised just short of $1,000, of the the $12,000 goal by the end of February. Desiree Underwood, RISEN’s co-founder, started the GoFundMe campaign in mid-January.
Gardner said he’d use the money for his rent and to just get by.
“I’m still at the rehab facility, so they’re feeding me. I have bills piling up, I have medical equipment, I have to pay for my diabetic supplies,” Gardner said.
Applications were submitted for food stamps and disability assistance, but the dollars could potentially be months away.
Because Gardner is technically still employed at the library, he’s barred from getting unemployment, even though he’s not receiving any income or benefits.
Brian Gardner was employed at the New Brunswick Free Public Library for several years. Credit: Courtesy of Brian Gardner
His youngest brother, now living in Louisiana, had been dependent on Brian’s health benefits to care for his cancer, but he could now be losing those.
“I’m not able to work,” Gardner said. “So it’s no use for them to be paying my benefits and paying me if I’m not working.”
Always Look on the Bright Side
People who’ve known Gardner for years say he’s always been able to make the best out of any situation.
“In the rehab, when I went to visit him, he was bubbly,” said Kim Kirkley, a fellow librarian and former supervisor of Gardner. “You wouldn’t even know he was in there because of his illness.”
While at rehab, located just up Interstate 287 in Bound Brook, Gardner said he would often make witty jokes about his amputation.
“Whenever I have a new nurse and she has to check my foot wound, I scream and say ‘What did you do? What happened to my foot?’, as if I never knew about the amputation,” Gardner said, with a laugh.
Before the onset of his bacterial meningitis, Gardner was a frequent stand-up comedian at the Stress Factory Comedy Club in downtown New Brunswick.
But with his hearing diminished, he had to take an unfortunate step back.
“You go off your audience,” Gardner said. “If you can’t hear, you can’t tell if you’re doing good or bad.”
Still, Gardner enjoys the chance to tell a good joke.
“I wrote, I entertain my friends,” Gardner said.
Kirkley said she believed Gardner’s sense of humor and ability to make light of any situation was due to his tough years growing up.
Years ago, just a few days after graduating high school, Brian’s father passed away, due to a severe allergic reaction to food eaten at a graduation celebration.
Gardner was left caring for his four siblings at the age of 18, which he somehow managed to pull off. His immediate family is currently rather extensive: a 27-year-old sister and three brothers, ages 26, 25 and 24.
Brian Gardner (center back) with his younger siblings. Credit: Courtesy of Brian Gardner
He has two half-siblings, a 13-year-old sister and a 17-year-old brother, who live with their mom.
Shortly after his high school graduation, Gardner landed his job as maintenance at the city library.
Kirkley, at the time, was Gardner's supervisor, and they bonded instantly. Gardner attributed it to the fact that they were both Pisces. She referred to Gardner as her “work son.”
Gardner had a tendency to put others before himself, even it might not have been in his self-interest.
“Not just on a work level, outside of work,” Kirkley said. “If there was something that needed to be done, he know what he had to do. He knows intuitively what to do to help that person.”
Lending A Helping Hand
While at rehab, one of Gardner's roommates had trouble with the food.
“Brian would get in his wheelchair, go to the nurses stations, and tell the nurses station ‘This guy needs help, his food is cold, how dare you give him cold food',” Kirkley said.
Gardner had graduated from the culinary school at Elijah’s Promise, and used his connections to have one of the chef’s prepare a few meals for the roommate.
In 2011, Gardner met with Underwood at a conference aimed at developing ideas to help troubled inner-city youth.
Neither were entirely excited with what was brainstormed at the conference, but found that their ideas clicked on how they could make a difference in the city. So they founded RISEN.
“Every year, we did a Thanksgiving feast,” Underwood said. “We’d do feasts at a location in New Brunswick; we’d have a van pick them up.
Locations would vary: It could be Elijah’s Promise, a local business or local religious center.
“We used our own money to finance mostly everything, and we did some fundraisers, and we had some people sponsor a child.There were different ways, but it was all grassroots. We didn’t have a budget, we did it after working hours,” Underwood said.
Incidentally, the two had crossed paths for several years at that point: Garder was working at the library where Underwood, as a high school student without a computer, would come to do homework.
Things went on this way for several years prior, during which it was just cordial and casual interactions.
Just getting by
Underwood said she wants to raise the lion’s share of the $12,000 by the end of February, but donations would gladly be accepted any time after that.
“He needs it as soon as possible,” Underwood said
“I know that it was tough and he was saying he might have to reach out to sme family members to see if they can help,” Underwood added.
Gardner said he’s been able to tap into some help from the family he raised. A year ago, he moved out of New Brunswick to stay at his sisters out in Somerset County.
She and her husband were able to sleep on the living room couch temporarily, while Brian used their bedroom, mainly because of its instant access to the bathroom.
“Everyone’s been trying to connect me with people behind the scenes,” Gardner said.
His list of needs keeps growing: a wheelchair and handicap-accessible, low income housing.
“I don’t expect much, because people are having a lot of hard times now,” Gardner added.
But Gardner remains upbeat, and confident things will work out. He wants to set an example for the many youth he’s mentored that things will be okay.
“A lot of people ask me why am I joking around, why do I stay so positive with all the things going on,” Gardner said. “I still smile, I have people watching me, my mentees, my nieces and nephews, my brothers and sisters.”
“I try to live by example.”