By Cheryl Conway
A volunteer: “A person who voluntarily undertakes or expresses a willingness to undertake a service; to offer or bestow.”
Joanne Willans of Whippany is one such volunteer but the 49-year old Youth Ministry director of the First Presbyterian Church in Whippany would consider it more like a reflex or natural reaction to helping others.
“Volunteering is part of my life,” she explains. “When an elderly person in town needs leaves raked they call me to find help with that, or when someone has a parent/relative pass away and they need to clean out their home, they contact me. We clean it out and then donate the clothes and unwanted items to people in need.
“People contact me when someone is in need of something and I do my best to fill the need,” she says. “Whether it be food, prepared meals for when they are ill, a prom dress, or manual labor, I volunteer my time and resources to help out others, whenever I can.
“I’m the go to person; that’s what I’m in town,” says Willans. “We make things happen when people need things. That’s just who we are. We do a lot of things with the church,” and even help with its food pantry.
Living in Whippany since she was six years old, Willans has been connected to her community most of her life. A boy named Steve she met and dated through her church youth group at First Presbyterian Church when she was 14 was the same man she married just three weeks after she graduated from college. Shortly after their marriage, she started volunteering at that same church in 1992 and when the pastor retired “we took it over” she says. “The youth group is ours; that’s my baby. This is the same youth group I grew up with.”
While Willans gets paid a salary for her work as a director of Youth Ministry since 2008 most of her work is volunteer. The church’s pastor of the adult ministry is Sarah Cairapti, while Willans runs all the high school and junior high school programs at the church.
“We run the Kindness Project one Sunday a month,” she says, collecting and delivering clothes and sandwiches to the homeless in Newark outside of Penn Station. “We hand out clothing and food every third Sunday of the month. Our kids have grown to love it; been doing it for two years now.”
From about 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m., Willans and her husband, one or two other adults and at least eight kids in sixth grade and up from Whippany, Cedar Knolls and Rockaway take three car loads to a grassy triangular area outside of Penn Station to hand out the items to those in need.
Willans’ group usually shows up with about 200 sandwiches in assorted varieties such at turkey and cheese, ham and cheese, tuna or peanut butter and jelly on white or wheat bread. Steve, who works in sales at Stroehmann by Bimbo Bakeries, gets the bread donated to his cause.
They also bring snacks such as cakes, fruit and vegetables such as bananas, carrots, apples, as well as water and juice.
“They don’t get that from other people,” says Willans about the healthier foods. “That’s one thing they always lack, especially bananas. We can get bananas at Costco at a good price.”
To offset costs, Willans applied for and received a $500 grant in 2018 from Newton Presbyterian Church.
Members from her church have also been a big supporter of the Kindness Project.
“Our youth group organized shelves upstairs in classrooms,” with bins to sort sizes.
Her group also connected with Howard’s Mission in Cedar Knolls which donates brand new and gently worn clothing, undergarments and shoes.
“They fill a truck,” says Willans regarding Howard’s Mission, with 10 to 12 boxes of clothing for men, women, and children; coats, blankets, thermal underwear, socks.
“They support groups like us,” says Willans. “They do this out of the kindness of their hearts. “They give us a lot, bundle it according to size.”
“We have so much so why not give back?” says Willans. “We are very lucky and fortunate. There are so many people who are not that fortunate.”
Returning to the church youth group that she grew up in, and now serving as an adult leader, is most meaningful to Willans.
“This church means the world to me,” says Willans. “It’s great I can show these kids what they can do. They can make a huge difference. I love bringing them down there [to Newark] and show the smile on their faces.
“I love my kids; don’t think twice about helping someone else,” continues Willans. “That’s what you should do; that’s how you should live. I love that my kids didn’t bat an eye. People are like ‘You are taking these kids to Newark?’ And I say ‘so what.’ They sing with these people, talk to them, laugh with them. The kids go in and know them by name.”
In addition to the donations they make in Newark, Willans and her youth group visits the Homeless Solutions shelter in Morris Plains.
“Our church cooks meals there,” she says, including her youth group, every fourth Sunday dinner.
The best part is “when we’re in there and we recognize someone who we saw before on the street.”
Besides organized volunteer efforts, Willans gets her crew involved in random efforts such as last summer 2017 when she and 20 kids from her youth group spent an entire day cleaning up a house in Rockaway.
Another church member/volunteer Joyce Schuckman of Rockaway knew about this homeowner about to be evicted by the town for poor property maintenance. So she contacted Willans and the youth group.
“There was stuff everywhere,” describes Willians. “Joyce who lives in Rockaway said ‘we need to do something.’ There was so much garbage, scrap metal. Our youth group has a trailer; 100 pounds later, made them $170 in scrap metal,” picking up various items such as engine blocks, swing sets, garbage, debris.
When other neighbors saw the youth group cleaning up the lawn, a chain reaction occurred and others started to pitch in, volunteering their time too offering home improvements like fixing the roof, redoing the floor, says Willans.
“Neighbors are coming up to us asking ‘Why are you doing this?’ says Willans. “Neighbors down the street were buying us lunch. Mayor wrote us a beautiful note.”
Willans and other neighbors wound up saving the house owned by a married couple with four kids, pregnant wife, working husband.
“They had only four days to do it,” says Willans. The judge gave them an extension to fix inside of the house since the exterior was presentable.
She also helps out at the East Orange Charter School collecting and donating holiday gifts and food baskets.
“Whenever they need anything they give us a call,” says Willans. One year a girl there could not afford a prom dress. “Not only did we get her a prom dress,” but also paid for her to get her “hair done at DE Pasquale, got her a limo.”
That effort led her group to donate prom gowns for the past three years to various hospitals who organize proms for cancer patients. Last year they donated 25 and this year plans to have a “big collection” of more gowns and cocktail dresses with 15 already collected, she says.
The also donate toys to Ronald McDonald House for Operation Ho Ho Ho.
“We have lots of things our kids like to do,” says Willans. One new idea is to host a senior prom for senior citizens.
Mountain T.O.P. Rings In 25 Years
Involved for 19 of those years, every July Willans takes about two dozen girls and boys in high school and college to one of poorest areas to help improve lives.
Even my college kids come back” to join her on mission trips to Tennessee.
This summer, 26 youth attended the mission trip held July 14-22 in Altamont, Tenn.
“It’s amazing,” says Willans. “We’ve tried other missions,” she says, but there is something about the Tennessee mission which always brings them back.
Willans describes it as an “old Christian community” where “you eat breakfast together,” build homes, wheelchair ramps, talk to people in day camps, spend time with kids in the community. “You eat dinner together, you worship together, nothing is commercialized.”
They sit by the campfire without any electronics.
“We like how it’s simple,” she says. “You get rough cut lumber; you are on the back roads in Tennessee. It’s beautiful there. We travel 16 hours. It’s a great program, great camp, great service to the community. We are reaching thousands.”
This trip involves tools and building, says Willans, unlike the other mission trip she takes every summer with the younger kids- sixth grade to seniors- which is more of a community service mission to areas in New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Maryland.
This year, Willans and 12 students attended the one week mission from July 1-6 to Burtonsville, MD. There they volunteered at Habitat For Humanity, a YMCA day camp, two assisted living places and a park.
Willans’ youth group also works with ReStart Ministry, which collects furniture and clothing for people placed in rehab, battered women’s shelters, Homeless Solutions, in need of items when they get out.
ReStart Ministry “will furnish their apartment for them” to help them get started; will get dishes for them and other needed items like twin beds, kitchenettes, pots and pans.
“We will help deliver; will help get stuff for them; help organize storage facilities; put together bed frames and kitchen sets,” she describes, “pulled mattresses up balconies; we assemble kitchens to go. We love what they do. We love to set it up and have things ready for them.
What I love about Homeless Solutions, it’s not a hand out, it’s a hand up.”
Besides serving as role model to her youth group, Willans’ altruism has also rubbed off on her own kids.
As a mother of four- Ben, 22; Josh, 20; Samantha, 16; and Tim, 14- Willans has gotten her kids involved as volunteers.
Her son, Ben, has worked at Mountain T.O.P. for the past three summers, she says.
“They have to raise their own money to work there,” she says.
This past summer was the “best summer of her life,” she says, as “all six of us were at the Mountain T.O.P. this year at the same camp at the same time.”
“Most of this I do with my kids,” says Willans. “Anything I do, I do with my kids.”
Her kids have gotten her involved through the schools and sports too.
For the past five years she has run the Hanover Twp. Little League snack bar as she got involved through her kids.
She was her daughter’s softball and soccer coach for travel and recreation for years.
Willans used to work full time as a music teacher at the Hanover Elementary and middle schools- a position she held for eight years from 1999 to 2004- but after child number four, became a substitute in the schools and private music teacher from home.
“When I work, I do it while they are school or I work at the school,” says Willans. “I try to do things with them. It’s rare I’m without a child.”
Her older kids come home from college and go with her to Newark. “My 22 year old was the advisor during the Week of Hope” junior high trip while her daughter was one of the youth members volunteering.
“Hanover Symphony is one thing I do for me,” says Willans who is a bassoonist. She attended Rutgers, New Brunswick, Mason Gross School of Arts, where she attained a bachelor’s in music and music education.
“My summer mission trips of Mountain T.O.P. and Week of Hope are amazing and I look forward to them every year, especially when my family is with me!” says Willans.
“I love the people we meet on the streets of Newark with our Kindness Project, serving meals at Homeless Solutions and helping ReStart Ministry is great because you are helping others while they are getting their feet back on the ground but volunteerism, in my opinion, is something that should be second nature,” concludes Willans. “People should volunteer their time and resources and offer compassion for others.
“My favorite saying is a Swedish Proverb: ‘The best place to find a helping hand is at the end of your own arm.’ It should be that simple.”