NEWTON — Everyone gathered on the Connor Green at Sussex County Community College could hear the distant roar of engines, growing louder as they made their way through the campus from the upper parking lot.
Eventually, 15 motorcycles driven by members of the American Legion Riders of New Jersey came into view, traveling along College Hill Road before making a right turn into the large pavilion on the green. A bus, painted white with an American flag and the head of a bald eagle, followed behind and was encircled by the escorting motorcycles as it entered the pavilion to loud whistles and applause from the crowd.
It was quite the entrance for the "mobile closet," a converted school bus now used by Project Help to benefit local low-income veterans as they transfer back into civilian life. The vehicle’s renovation was no small task, and the ceremony at the college Tuesday night was Project Help’s way of showing gratitude for everyone who participated in the project and helped make it a reality.
"Our charity is a real, true charity. None of us get paid," said Sandy Mitchell, founder and executive director of Project Help. "We work very hard and this is more than a full-time job, so when we have the opportunity to put our people out in front of other people to recognize our effort, we like to do that."
The project originated about two years ago when Mitchell contacted longtime family friend Mike Miller, of George’s Salvage, who donated a school bus that would be driven around the county to aid veterans without access to a vehicle. From there, several other local professionals worked on renovating the bus, and all were honored with plaques at Tuesday’s ceremony.
Karl Broton Jr., of Broton Contracting, renovated the bus interior in two days, installing custom cabinets, wood floors and hanging rods for clothing. All-County Transmissions owner Mike Merle provided new brakes at no cost to Project Help, while Bernie Cooke, of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, had the bus wrapped in vinyl for free — normally a $12,000 cost, according to Mitchell.
The last remodeling project for the bus will be completed by the local chapter of the Sheet Metal Workers Association, which will install a platform and stairs with a railing near the rear of the vehicle to make two entrances and exits.
Mitchell explained that the bus will be used primarily in advance of college career fairs and similar events, with free clothing available for veterans to take as they prepare for job interviews. Among other services, it will also include computers and printers at select times so beneficiaries can type up and print out resumes.
"We really want this to be a valuable service to the veteran community," Mitchell said.
Approximately 100 members of the public attended Tuesday’s unveiling of the bus, among them SCCC administrators; Sen. Steve Oroho and Assemblymen Parker Space and Hal Wirths, all R-24th Dist.; and Freeholders Herb Yardley and Sylvia Petillo.
In brief remarks toward the end of the ceremony, Oroho credited the persistent attitude of Mitchell as well as the generous spirit of the community in seeing the bus project come to fruition. As he looked around at the many military veterans and first responders in attendance, he noted to the audience that the vehicle is the public’s chance to repay their years of service.
"That’s why this kind of bus is so important because some of them really need our help," Oroho said. "That’s what we’ve got to always remember, that they responded when we needed them. We need to respond when they need us."
Kyle Morel can also be contacted on Twitter: @KMorelNJH, on Facebook: Facebook.com/KMorelNJH, or by phone: 973-383-1292.