Efforts continue to collect new donations for Ukrainian refugees in Poland

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UNION, NJ — Since April, when Union businessman Samuel Casternovia and his daughter, Samantha, took to heart the reports of Ukrainian refugees fleeing to Poland with nothing but the clothes on their backs and decided to do something about it, the response from the community has been overwhelming.

“We are about 60 percent toward our goal of filling a 20-foot container,” said Samantha Casternovia in an interview with Union County LocalSource on Friday, May 20. “We have drop-off locations and we also set up a box at the Hannah Caldwell School, where photos were taken on Tuesday, May 10.”

Samantha Casternovia said they never expected such a positive response. Originally, she said she was concerned about who to speak to about donations.

“I actually went back to my old high school, Gill St. Bernard’s School in Chester Township, and they collected a bunch of stuff for me, which was really amazing,” she said.
She needn’t have worried.

“We’ve gotten a lot of mail-in donations directly (from people who ordered items) from Amazon and Target,” Samantha Casternovia continued. “People have heard through word of mouth, plus I posted a lot on social media, and on the highway, we have a couple or signs and one of the signs has the mailing address of the barber shop.”

The effort has been a family affair, she added, and even friends have gotten involved.

“The other day, my mother and I and two of our friends went through all of the donations and sorted them to see where we were,” said Samantha Casternovia. “We got a lot of blankets, which are very useful, and we have a good array of clothing, all the way from newborn to adult. We did get a lot of heavily used clothing.”

“Things are moving along,” said Samuel Casternovia in a press release on Monday, May 23. “As of today, we have collected enough merchandise to fill about 60 percent of the container. We can still use new children’s and new women’s clothes. Please, they must be new, never used, preferably with tags.”

“I just know it has to be clean and in good condition,” Samantha Casternovia said. “We do need new clothing for customs reasons. … We have to make sure everything is clean and in good condition.”

“I appreciate that those people were trying to help, and I don’t want to bash them, but I am really looking for new clothing because of customs,” she added.

“I do not need any more teddy bears,” added Samuel Casternovia. “I was able to find and buy 800 beautiful new teddy bears, all in plastic bags.”

Meanwhile, Samantha Casternovia said they are trying to fill up the container as fast as they can, recognizing that the church in Poland where they will be sending the clothing and accessories is eagerly awaiting it.

“They’re still waiting for the shipment and we’re getting it together for them as fast as we can,” she said. “We’re working with a great coordinator, a trucking company, and they’re helping us coordinate it with the ship and shipping in Poland. We want to make it as easy as possible.”

“They can’t pick it up in the port,” Samantha Casternovia said of those in need in Poland. “The idea is the trucking company will take it right to the church and unload all of it and the boxes will be labeled. We went through and sorted it: newborn toddler, child, adult, blankets, towels, toys. …”

“We are shipping the donations to a church in Poland,” said Samuel Casternovia. “A personal friend of mine was able to get firsthand verification of the need and personally vet the priest. So, there is no middleman. Everything will go in the hands of very needy refugees. Shipping to Poland is very difficult with customs and regulations. Five shipping companies refused my daughter Samantha’s request for a container, even if I paid full price. Then we found help. I called a friend of mine, Greg Lodato, and he called his friends, and not only are they willing to ship, but they are also giving us a discount. This will save me several thousand dollars. Some people go out of their way.”

“We had reached out to people and been able to sort some stuff out,” continued Samantha Casternovia.

She said she and her family have been trying to make it the best kind of presents ever.

“Our goal is really just to get good things there and make it easy for them to receive it,” she said. “That’s why my mother and I decided to label the boxes as neat as we can. We wanted to make it easy.”

She also acknowledges that this has proved a far greater undertaking than she had ever imagined. Fortunately for her, she was going into this relief effort blind.

“I’m lucky that my parents have done things like this before,” said Samantha Casternovia.

Meanwhile, time keeps passing. She remains undeterred, however, even when thinking about how much longer it will take to accomplish their mission.

“Our dream date? We’d like to be done in three weeks,” said Samantha Casternovia. “It’s about filling the container now.”

When she and her mom and dad went to Hannah Caldwell Elementary School on Commerce Avenue in Union, they never expected such a turnout, or such generosity. Capturing everyone in a photograph seemed fitting, as it was a truly memorable experience.

“The first photo is of some of the teachers and the interim principal,” said Samantha Casternovia. “The other one is all the students. They got paperwork signed by their parents so that the photo can be sent to a newspaper.”

She continued to praise their generosity.

“I can’t remember if people brought the clothing in or if the teachers just bought it with money that was brought in.

“We have everything in cardboard boxes right now. When we are ready to ship everything, they will send us the big metal container. Once we get the container filled, the shipping company will send us the paperwork we need,” said Samantha Casternovia. “They’ll contact the customs person. We’re all on an email chain together.”

Some want to know why the Casternovias are being so generous, but for Samuel Casternovia, there was never any question. He says he always knew that this was how he had to live his life.

“People dropping off clothing have asked us who is doing this or why are we doing this,” he said. “This and many other projects throughout my life are as much about giving as they are about getting. I have been dealing with cancers and cancer treatments for more than 40 years, and a few times have been written off. Projects like this keep me going, give me a reason to come back. I feel I am needed; it gives me life. When I was 22, I read something that has stayed with me every day of my life. … ‘If you want to be rich in life, you must first enrich others.’”

Samuel Casternovia continued, “Several years ago, I was sitting in one of my many doctors’ offices and I said to him, ‘Doc, how come I am still alive? Is it because I exercise religiously, eat whole foods, take supplements?’

He looked at me and said, ‘No, Sam, it is because you are delusional — you think you belong here.”

People can continue to drop off new clothing and pajamas at the Casternovias’ business, Statement Barbershop, 1564 U.S. Route 22 E., Union, or at LL Flooring, also known as Lumber Liquidators, 1603 Route 22 W., Union. The main dropoff point is a warehouse right behind this address; Samantha Casternovia said she has been making special trips to move everything that’s dropped off to the warehouse.

“Anyone who wants to help us can go online to any site, buy some clothing and ship it to my barbershop,” said Samuel Casternovia. “Or they could drop it off.”

Samantha Casternovia also said they are collecting from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends, although people can stop by at any time, and whatever they drop off will be held onto until they are there.

“I have a lot of friends and family from out of state, and they just go online and ship it to the barber shop and I pick it up and bring it to the warehouse, which is just across the street.”

“If anyone has any questions, they can call and leave a message at my office at 908-687-3283,” she added.

Photos Courtesy of Hannah Caldwell School, the Casternovias