Kean group rewards Elizabeth heroes after bomb incidents

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By Rebecca Panico | Published Oct. 22, 2016

When Prof. Norma Bowe heard of the bombs found near the Elizabeth train station on Sept. 18, it bothered her that the two men responsible for alerting police of the danger were known only as homeless.

“Anyone can be a hero, even someone homeless,” said Bowe, founder of Be the Change, a Kean University-based organization that’s been helping people locally and nationally since 2008. “And therefore we have to extrapolate that homeless people are people and we don’t treat them very well.”

MORE: Be the Change surprises student with scooter after flood of donations

Bowe – notable for her popular death class at Kean University — and members of Be the Change made it their mission to track the two men down. They not only wanted to help them, but reward them for their courage.

“I couldn’t let it stand that they were being called two homeless men,” Bowe added. “Especially — one of them had a home.”

Ivan White, a Navy veteran, has a home, while Lee Parker has been homeless for about four years, Bowe said. The two friends have been caught in a whirlwind of media attention since they stumbled upon a backpack filled with explosives near the Broad Street train station about a mile away from Kean University.

After realizing what the contents of the backpack were, they walked the bombs to a less populated area off of Broad Street and then headed to the Elizabeth Police Department nearby to alert authorities of the danger, Bowe said. The package was later unintentionally set off by a Union County Bomb Squad robot.

Since Parker and White’s heroics, Ahmad Khan Rahami of Elizabeth, was charged in connection with the bombs in not only Elizabeth, but also Seaside Park and Manhattan, CNN reported.

Parker told The Tower that he slept in an abandoned building the same night he alerted police of the danger. Parker became homeless after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Bowe said.

“We’re all just one paycheck away,” said Parker. “When the storm hit, one thing led to another. I was unemployed for a while and exhausted the unemployment benefits and found myself here.”

“Before I was homeless, I was employed. I was driving forklifts, I was shipping, receiving […] I was a workaholic.”

Lee Parker, left, and Ivan White, right, hold the key to the city at Elizabeth City Hall on Sept. 27. Credit: Rebecca Panico

Lee Parker, left, and Ivan White, right, hold the key to the city at Elizabeth City Hall on Sept. 27. Credit: Rebecca Panico

The duo were given the key to the city at Elizabeth City Hall on Sept. 27 and honored again two days later at a Union County Freeholders meeting along with the Elizabeth and Linden police departments and the Union County Bomb Squad.

A Gofundme page has raised over $33,000 since Sept. 19 and will be divided evenly among Parker, White and the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless.

“We’d most like to thank the Coalition to [House] the Homeless,” White said at City Hall. “We just appreciate everything everyone has done for us, and God bless you all.”

At City Hall, Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage recognized Kean University students who “stepped forward to help” Parker find housing.

Be the Change has ballooned into an organization of over 950 members online for people who “were tired of talking of change,” Bowe said. About 300 are Kean students, while others are alumni or people outside of the school.

Using her connections she’d established working with the homeless, Bowe was able to track down Parker and White less than a day after the incident. They would find the two at White’s house, even before major media outlets could.

Bowe and a small group of students, including Denise Winkle, a 22-year-old community recreation major, treated Parker to a steak dinner at Algarve, a Portuguese restaurant in Elizabeth.

“We got his name and the next thing you know we’re sitting down, having a steak dinner with him,” said Winkle, a member of Be the Change since 2008. ”Everything happened so [fast]. You feel good. You’re really helping someone out. There’s really not a lot of words sometimes to explain the stuff that we do.”

The organization’s help didn’t end there. They’ve put Parker up in a hotel until he can find permanent housing and he’s found a job as a forklift operator – a skill he was already certified in — at a local supermarket.

“He’s just a very humble, sweet guy,” said Jessica Fernandez, a member of Be the Change and Bowe’s graduate assistant. “So it’s definitely exciting to know that we can contribute to changing his life for the better. [It’s] what he deserves.”

They’ve also given White and Parker gift cards to help with food, and hooked up Parker with a bicycle — which he now calls his “whip” — to help him commute to work.

Be the Change also has two small storage units in Kenilworth filled with furniture, clothing and other houseware donations they’ve received throughout the years. Parker was able to pick what he needed for his future apartment there.

“She’s [Bowe] been reaching out to me in a major, major major way,” said Parker. “She’s been reaching out to me. I love Dr. Bowe.”

Be the Change is involved in a number of activities, which include giving peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches to those in need at Newark Penn Station. To learn more, join their Facebook group.

Rebecca Panico may be reached at Follow The Tower on Twitter@KeanTower. Find The Tower on Facebook.

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