Four who help others and should be better known

Generation members (from left) Skylar Galati, Christopher Crumb, Victoria Falkenstein, Amanda Merrigan.
Generation members (from left) Skylar Galati, Christopher Crumb, Victoria Falkenstein, Amanda Merrigan.
Posted: December 30, 2013

A motor vehicle accident shattered Emilee Ballinghoff's bones, but not her spirit.

The Sicklerville resident, 19, hopes to counsel other young women and girls who need someone to talk to.

"When I get all better," she says gently, "I just want to be their shoulder to cry on."

The same kind of commitment motivates nine student singers from Gloucester and Salem Counties, who perform for dementia patients as an ensemble called Generation while raising money for Alzheimer's charities.

Meanwhile, in Camden, Evan Winokur's and Timothy John "T.J." Eaton's organization, A Little Helping Hand, provides 850 Camden and Philadelphia students with winter clothing and holiday gifts.

And for the last three years, Beth Connolly has made weekly rounds in both cities, pulling up in her tan 1979 Econoline van to offer sandwiches, snacks, and a kind word to needy people.

Like Ballinghoff, Generation, and A Little Helping Hand, Connolly hasn't gotten much attention.

Hence my holiday season tip of the hat to four distinctive and deeply personal efforts to bring a bit of joy to the world.

"I don't think what I do is a big deal," says Connolly, 52, who works six nights a week as a dispatcher for a Pennsauken transportation company.

"People need to realize the need out there," the Somerdale resident says. "The amount of people who are suffering has increased."

Connolly, who has lupus, uses a cane, and is under 5 feet tall, has long had what she describes as a "calling" to assist homeless or otherwise needy people.

About 20 friends and fellow churchgoers from Methodist congregations in Glendora and Magnolia, as well as the Neighborhood Center in Camden, help her make sandwiches and collect donations of clothing and packaged foods.

"Everything is donations or out of our own pockets," Connolly says.

Volunteers are likewise essential to A Little Helping Hand.

"Without the generosity of our supporters, we wouldn't have an organization," says Winokur, 32, who grew up in Washington Township and lives in Wilmington. Eaton, his partner in founding A Little Helping Hand, hails from Tabernacle.

Their group has raised more than $15,000 since it was founded in 2007, much of that through an annual 5K run in Washington Lake Park in Washington Township. Proceeds help buy school supplies and other items for students throughout the region.

"We work closely with the three Acelero Learning Centers in Camden. . . . We get a list of the specific needs among the students," says Winokur, a kindergarten teacher in Philly. "Toys, warm clothes, toiletries, gift cards, anything the families need or ask for.

"T.J. and I talk all the time about how much we've been given," he adds. "So if even one child can live a little bit better because of A Little Helping Hand, then we've succeeded."

In August, the seven girls and two boys in Generation - their ages range from 8 to 16 - gave their first performance for Alzheimer's patients.

Daniel Glaudel, their vocal coach and piano teacher, and parent Ceri Galati - both of whom had been touched by the predicament of those with dementia - helped them get off the ground.

The original plan was to sing on a few occasions in September, which is Alzheimer's Awareness Month. But word got around, bookings increased, and Generation has performed more than a dozen times in Gloucester, Cumberland, and Salem Counties.

"The experience has changed all of us," says Skylar Galati, 14, a soprano who lives in South Harrison and is a Kingsway Middle School eighth grader.

"We sing old songs and Broadway classics they would know, and we can hear some of [the patients] sing along with us, which is nice," she says. "Because we're able to see them having a good time, it's not sad. I think we kind of remind them of their grandchildren."

Her mother notes that the kids also have raised $5,500 for Alzheimer's charities. "How lucky I am to watch what happens when these kids sing," Ceri Galati says. "I feel I am in the middle of a blessing."

Ballinghoff's life was a challenge even before July 20, when an SUV in which she was a backseat passenger left the Black Horse Pike, overturned, and struck a utility pole in Monroe Township.

"My mother died when I was 11, and I don't really have a family," she says from her bed at Children's Specialized Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J., where she is undergoing yet another round of rehabilitation. Six surgeries so far; a seventh is possible.

Ballinghoff's right leg was amputated below the knee as a result of her injuries, which also included a broken left leg, a broken back, and punctured lungs.

"It's an amazing story, and Emilee is an absolute sweetheart," says Mike Barnes, executive director of the Barkann Family Healing Hearts Foundation in Newtown Square.

The foundation is assisting Ballinghoff financially, and connecting her with college-age volunteers and others to help her resume her life.

"We've all been kind of pulled in by her amazing attitude," Barnes says.

Emilee really is a remarkable person, and when I ask her what it's like being inspirational, she doesn't hesitate.

Having a chance to help others, she says, may be the reason "why I made it through the accident."


kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.inquirer.com/blinq

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