LOWER TOWNSHIP – In the kitchen of his ranch home near the West Cape May border, Edgar Neel said he needed help with work on his home, including the septic system and other issues.
“I’m hanging in there,” said Neel, 79 and a U.S. Navy veteran. “I could name 100 things, if you want, that went wrong.”
Looks like he’s in a much better position than he was when Lana Samuels first knocked on his door.
“He said, ‘Leave me alone. I just don’t want to go on,” said Samuels, founder of People in Crisis, which works to help people who are uninsured, homeless or facing crisis. Samuels started the group in 2003 to pay back a man she says saved her life.
Samuels of Ocean City enlisted a group of volunteers and applied for grants to support the work. She also goes door-to-door in communities across the region asking for help, which led her to Neel.
“I knock on everyone’s door,” she says.
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At that time, she and Neel said that Neel was out of heart medication and was told it would cost hundreds of dollars to get more. A Philadelphia doctor helped enroll Neel in a program where the drug now costs him $2.50, and the organization also arranged to repair the roof of the house and a detached garage.
“Both were fleeing. The house had a water leak,” Neel said.
People in Crisis members were able to find a company to donate the materials and a roofer to install them. As Neel describes it, the entrepreneur is an immigrant from Mexico whose son is entering the Coast Guard.
“He came with nothing and started a business,” Neel said. “He said, ‘Since you’re a veteran, I’ll put the roof on for free.
Neel has lived in the house since 1970, moving in after his discharge from the Navy. From 1962 to 1966, he served as a sailor aboard the aircraft carrier USS Constellation making multiple voyages to Vietnam, including time in the Gulf of Tonkin.
“At that time it was the biggest ship in the world,” he said.
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Neel said he believed he had been exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant used during the war that would have impacted the health of veterans for decades. Post-traumatic stress disorder continues to affect him, he said.
He said he was unable to work due to a back injury.
He is not married but said he has been with his ‘significant other’ since 1982. Dolores Love is currently in a nursing home, he said, and cannot afford the services at home that she would need to get home.
People in Crisis is also trying to raise enough money to fix the house’s septic system, which Neel says needs to be emptied every week or so, and to improve the landscaping around the property.
Samuels said Neel fell on the uneven ground several times. She said the organization helped rebuild her back steps, replacing the damaged and uneven steps with a new wooden structure with handrails.
She said one of the People in Crisis volunteers worked on a fundraising webpage to help Neel, and the organization helped him refinance his mortgage.
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Volunteer Bob Heide said People in Crisis representatives were also due to meet with a lawyer on Neel’s behalf, but would not say what it was, describing it as a “confidential matter”.
“He saved Ed’s life,” Samuels said of Heide, helping Neel refinance his mortgage.
“I was in default,” Neel said.
Part of what People in Crisis does is help people navigate existing programs and make connections, like finding a roofer willing to volunteer their time. Some existing veterans programs and other social service programs can be difficult to navigate.
“It’s part of Lana’s expertise,” Heide said. “She is relentless.”
Samuels said the group has several people on its board who help with issues, including doctors and lawyers. The organization’s website lists eight people the members have helped in South Jersey and beyond, including Neel.
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The organization sought grants to help its mission, which began with a man who Samuels says saved his life. She identifies him only as “Thomas” and says he gave every penny to support her after she was seriously injured on the job more than 30 years ago.
For about 20 years, Samuels knocked on doors to raise money to support Thomas. One of those shots led to someone helping her apply for a business grant. She hopes to apply for grants to help fund People in Crisis.
More information can be found at peopleincrisis.org.
Contact Bill Barlow: