NEWARK, NJ - Friends and family of Livingston native Jeff Gardner gathered to commemorate his life by spending a day volunteering for his favorite charity, Habitat for Humanity. Mr. Gardner, who died in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, dedicated his Saturdays to volunteering for Habitat for Humanity in Newark.
Every year since 2002, as a tribute to Jeff, his sister Amy Kassan organizes family and friends to gather to do a service project with Habitat for Humanity in his memory.
This year was the first year Jeff’s birthday fell on a Saturday during the first week of June.
“To make the day a little easier, we volunteer in his honor” Amy said of the annual event. Amy recalled that her brother had volunteered in Newark on Saturdays, as well as volunteering in places such as Honduras and Brazil.
Amy said each year she has shirts made up commemorating her brother and the work family and friends have done during the course of the day. The shirts read, “Shine on JBG," which stands for Jeff’s initials. The shirt also features a drawing of the sun, which had been Jeff’s tattoo.
Long time friend Owen Burns, also recalled that Jeff would go to South America with bags filled with children’s clothes to donate them. He would come back empty handed.
This year, Jeff’s family and friends, many of whom are also Livingston natives, gathered at 33 Gobble Street in Newark. There, they helped Habitat for Humanity with the restoration of a two-family home.
In explaining the mission of Habitat for Humanity, the Outreach Coordinator for Habitat Newark, Spencer Reckford, stated “Our mission is to provide safe, affordable housing for low income families.”
Thomas “Bolt” Benner, who is a Volunteer Coordinator for Habitat for Humanity, also helps out with a variety of jobs at work sites. Thomas started off having groups come together to work on houses. “You kind of put some competition in there,” said Benner.
Thomas cautioned that often times, the “little things that no one sees” in a house create the most amount of work. When he began working on this particular home, there was nothing but “just sheet rock on the walls”, and the house required electricity and windows needed to be insulated.
The two-family home consists of two separate units. In each unit, the volunteers focused their energy on the home’s finishing touches, such as kitchen counter tops, appliances, and cleaning. Both units fashioned white paint, wood floors, and consisted of three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, kitchen, and a basement where access to a washer and dryer would be readily accessible.
Gardner’s family and friends made the trip to Newark from points far and near in order to help make the Newark residence suitable for living, all the while celebrating the life of Jeff Gardner.
Burns, who became friends with Jeff at age 16, said that he believed Jeff would be proud of the work his friends and family did, and the homes they helped to build. “We’ve built some great houses, we’ve built some homes I think he’d really be excited about,” Burns said of Jeff at the annual event.
“I put in a sink, I am doing the washer, I’m doing the dryer” said Debbie Mack Glucksman, a high school friend of Amy Kassan. “I became involved, unfortunately, after 9/11, in honor of Jeffrey.” Debbie also said that in addition to Jeffrey’s memory, the annual project was “in honor of every person who deserves a second chance.”
Eric Garnder, Jeff’s older brother, said of the gathering, “We come here to kind of honor him, its appropriate to help out families, we always felt it was something that made sense." Eric also recalled that his brother had loved to work with his hands, and that he was self-taught. Eric said “there are always ways you can honor someone's memory."
Eric, who traveled to Newark from the Washington D.C. area, said that he also volunteers closer to his home around September 11th each year to honor his brother. “What’s good about this is, you feel like you are making tangible progress,” Eric said. He also stated that some years, families who would move into the new or renovated homes would work with the volunteers, as they are required to perform a certain amount of hours working on homes.
Childhood friend Anthony Nittolo and wife Rebecca drove eight hours, from Raleigh, North Carolina, to take part in the home restoration in Newark. Since 2002, they have done the same nearly every year. Anthony knew Jeff since they were approximately four years old. Of the variety of tasks they have done on homes in the past, Rebecca Nittolo stated that the couple has done “siding, insulation and framing. Every year is a little different.”
Neil Weissman, Jeff Gardner’s cousin, who traveled to Newark from Westchester, Pennsylvania, said the two were close as youths, as they were separated by just six months in age. "He loved Habitat for Humanity, so it seemed like the logical project. It’s great to see everyone, but I wish Jeff was with us.”
In addition to hard work, the volunteers recalled memories of Jeff Gardner.
“Years ago, we were baseball card collectors. I needed one guy to complete my New York Mets collection and I had to give him eighteen cards for the one Met card I needed. It was a lousy Met.” joked Pat Wells.
Pat also recalled that he would play football with his brother, Phil Wells, along with Jeff, and Jeff’s brother Eric.
“I get to see these guys I haven’t seen in eons.” said Phil of the day. Phil added that “our whole childhood revolved around the Gardner family” and that it was “nice to get together.”
Jeff’s sister, Amy Kassan, said her brother Jeff was “a student of life. He could get down and dirty here, but he also loved fine wines”. Amy also conveyed that her brother had a lot of friends, and was willing to lend a helping hand to anyone in need. “He had a huge heart.”
Steven Kassan, Amy Kassan’s husband and Jeff’s brother-in-law, said of Jeff that “I think he was someone who grew up middle class, but was willing to give his time; he saw value in giving someone a home, something to strive for.”
Steven and Amy Kassan also recalled that Jeff Gardner used to say that there were only “good days and great days.”
After Jeff’s parents passed, away the proceeds from their house went to the building of a Newark home for Habitat for Humanity in his honor. This final act of generosity was something his parents had wanted to do.
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