Last month, dozens of first responders and their families gathered for an evening of food, drink and dancing at Settles Hill Banquets in Altamont.
The first responders were among the agencies that came upon the horrific scene of the deadly limousine crash in Schoharie on Oct. 6, 2018, that killed 20.
After a year of vigils, funerals and memorials, this night was an opportunity to honor the first responders for their heroic efforts.
It was also the final piece of a yearlong effort, Healing Schoharie, a grassroots benefit for the families of the victims and the first responders.
As the lead organizer, I am proud of the work our group did to raise more than $50,000.
As the father of seven (five girls and two boys), I felt compelled to act. Eight others from the community joined me.
From the beginning, our committee was guided by the mantra that when a tragedy strikes, a community pulls together.
David Buicko of the Galesi Group offered Mohawk Harbor as our venue.
Philip Morris of Proctors allowed us to sell tickets through the theater’s website.
Companies including MVP Healthcare, Beekman 1802, and Rivers Casino and Resort soon signed on.
On Oct. 28, more than 1,000 people turned out for “Healing Schoharie,” featuring music, food vendors and raffles.
Despite a cold and steady rain, the event raised nearly $46,000.
This included more than $14,000 from Druthers Brewing Co. at Mohawk Harbor, its proceeds from beer sales and 50 percent of all customer checks for meals and drinks served in the restaurant that day.
It would have been easy to consider our event a success and move on.
However, with so many victims and first responders, the money we raised (minus expenses) would not go far.
In December, Centre Street in Schenectady hosted an event featuring Grand Central Station.
For a $10 donation, patrons could request a song for the band to play.
Instead, patrons dropped $20, $40, $50 – and in one case, $100 - to support the cause.
A month later, the First Reformed Church of Schenectady and the Stockade Inn hosted Bend and Brew, featuring yoga and craft beer donated by Mad Jack Brewing Company.
We were inching closer to the unstated goal of $50,000.
As a native of New Jersey, I’ve got Bruce Springsteen in my DNA.
I reached out to Chris Phillips, the editor of Backstreets, the main online source for Springsteen news.
The Boss soon signed for auction a framed promotional poster from the Mohawk Harbor event: “God Bless, Bruce Springsteen.
A Schenectady woman placed the winning bid of $1,525.
“I just wanted to help,” she told me.
We recently distributed the bulk of the funds to the families of the victims.
We decided that the best way to honor the 150 first responders would be to host an appreciation dinner.
Any remaining funds would support the permanent memorial at the crash site.
The event at Settles Hill featured local singer Demantra Constantine, who opened with a moving rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
I struggled to read a note to the first responders from Jill Richardson-Perez on behalf of the victims’ families.
Her son, Matthew Coons, 27, was among those killed.
“We cannot imagine what you saw or experienced – we do not want to even imagine it – but you may have lost something that day as well as we have,” she wrote.
“You are to be honored … you are heroes and you must remember this.”
For more than three hours, the first responders enjoyed a hearty buffet and music by Grand Central Station.
Ten minutes before the event was to end, a first responder asked if we could pass around a hat around to extend the night.
Few wanted to leave.
The dancing continued for another 30 minutes or so.
“Thanks for an amazing evening,” one fire chief remarked as the night wound down.
“We needed this.”
Phillip Wajda is director of media relations at Union College.