Elizabeth’s heroes receive well-deserved recognition

Photo by Elana Knopp     From left, Executive Director of ECHH Linda Flores-Tober, Lee Parker, Ivan White, President of At Heart’s Length Lester Dominguez and Donald Goncalves.
Photo by Elana Knopp
From left, Executive Director of ECHH Linda Flores-Tober, Lee Parker, Ivan White, President of At Heart’s Length Lester Dominguez and Donald Goncalves.

ELIZABETH, NJ — Elizabeth’s very own homegrown heroes were awarded for their bravery last week at a ceremony at the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless.

Lee Parker and Ivan White, the two Elizabeth men who discovered the bomb-filled backpack on an Elizabeth street last month — allegedly placed there by Ahmad Khan Rahami, now known as the New York/New Jersey bomber later apprehended by Linden police — were rewarded for their heroism by two Elizabeth residents who wanted to thank the two men in a tangible way.

Donald Goncalves, who started a Go Fund Me fundraising campaign for both Parker and White, along with Lester Dominguez of At Heart’s Length — a nonprofit organization located in Elizabeth devoted to helping those in need — raised a whopping $33, 835 for not only Parker and Lee, but for the ECHH as well. Although the fundraising goal was set at $10,000, the outpouring of thanks translated into three times the expected amount.

Each man received a check for $10,000 at the event, along with the ECHH, who also received a check for $10,000.

Goncalves started the campaign Sept. 19, and many responded to his request to help the two men. “Two individuals found a backpack at the Elizabeth train station that had a number of pipe bombs located in the bag,” wrote Goncalves on the “Hometown Heroes” Go Fund Me page. “Had it not been for these heroes, Elizabeth, N.J. would have experienced a devastating terrorist attack. Thanks to Ivan White and Lee Parker, that explosion did not happen. We owe them a debt of gratitude.”

At the time of the campaign, Parker — who is friends with White — was homeless and unemployed. “Lee Parker is homeless and Ivan White lives on a fixed income,” Goncalves wrote. “We are raising money for these two heroes who have done much for our community. A portion of the funds will also go toward the Elizabeth Coalition for the Homeless. Funds will be split 1/3 for Lee Parker, 1/3 for Ivan White and 1/3 for the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless. This group is providing services to the homeless and the needy. They have already been able to place Lee in a home and are working on permanent housing for him.”

And, indeed, just weeks after the incident, Parker now has a place of his own to call home, along with successfully securing a job at Starbucks.

Both Parker and White told LocalSource during an in-person interview about the harrowing ordeal that led to their status as official hometown heroes.

According to White, he unexpectedly ran into Parker — his close friend for close to 20 years — and invited him to his house for a hot shower and some sleep. “I ran into Lee and invited him to crash on the couch,” White said.

Parker had a job interview that very day, according to White, and so the offer was appreciated. “Lee showered and shaved and slept on my couch,” said White.
After Parker went home with White, the two men went out for a walk and came upon the backpack near the train station. According to White, Parker had just mentioned his need for a backpack, and that’s when the two men spotted it. “We saw this new backpack sitting on top of a garbage can,” White said. “I went across the street to a store to get some cigarettes, and I told Lee to take the backpack across the street into the park to see what was inside.”

When White rejoined his friend in the park minutes later, Parker showed him what was inside the backpack. “I knew they were bombs,” White said, who told Parker that they needed to report it to the police immediately. “I knew this was something that needed to be dealt with right away.”

Both men walked to the closest police station to report the backpack, and brought officers back to where the backpack was located — and the rest, literally, is history.

Goncalves told LocalSource that his decision to start a fundraising campaign was simply due to his gratitude at the heroic actions of both White and Parker. “Like everyone else, I heard in the news that two individuals who were potentially homeless had located a backpack with a bomb,” Goncalves said. “The fact that these were two average, ordinary individuals out on the streets of Elizabeth and had saved the lives of many people by locating this bomb, I believe, deserved recognition. I used to work in downtown New York City, so I was always very aware and understand the stress of riding a train on the daily basis into the city.”

Goncalves said that the personal situations of both men struck a chord. “At the minimum I wanted was to shake their hand,” said Goncalves. “Knowing the story and having seen the explosion of only one of the pipe bombs, I got together with the organization, At Heart’s Length, and set up a gofundme page. The contributions that came in online from around the world was very heartwarming to see. I believe that both of them were very humbled. Lee, in particular, who has been legitimately homeless for over two years was only concerned with his most basic needs the day I met him. He was hungry and he wanted to get a bite to eat.”

Parker told LocalSource that the incident has impacted his life forever. “It changed my life in a good way,” said Parker. “I’m no longer homeless and I’m working full-time.”

Goncalves is thrilled that the story has a happy ending. “Lee now has a job and is presently living in transitional housing,” said Goncalves. “The money we gave him will help him pay for his own apartment. I can’t tell you how that makes me feel. Ivan lives on a fixed income. He will be using his money to visit some family that he hasn’t seen in a long time. They are both heroes to me. $10,000 is a lot of money to them. I told them both that I hope they spend it wisely and I am very convinced that the Elizabeth coalition to House the Homeless will be using the money for worthwhile things.”

Goncalves said that donations came from around the globe. “We received contributions from all over the world, as far away with London,” said Goncalves.
“When I was called by the BBC for an interview, I knew that the story had touched people all around the world. We are all vulnerable to terrorism and here was a situation where two individuals that were scavenging located a backpack inside a garbage can, opened up the bag and found five pipe bombs. They didn’t just run away. They weren’t embarrassed by the story, they just contacted the police immediately. Because of their clear-minded reaction to the situation, they saved many lives in Elizabeth. They are heroes. They are my heroes.”

In a note on the Go Fund Me page, Goncalves updated supporters. “We were with both Lee and Ivan yesterday,” wrote Goncalves. “Lee has a job now and a place to stay. The Coalition is completing a plan for him to get his own permanent place, which should be happening soon. Ivan is doing well also. They asked us to thank everyone for the support.”