Following Loss Of Parents, Community Steps In To Care For Man With Special Needs
FRENCHTOWN, N.J. — If you visit Frenchtown, there’s a good chance you’ll run into Edward Joseph “E.J.” Collins.
“You could call E.J. the unofficial mayor of the town,” said Denise Snyder, associate director in the family support office for The Arc of Hunterdon County in Hampton. “He could be a tour guide for Frenchtown and tell everybody everything they need to know about Frenchtown.”
Rick Paul, a Frenchtown resident and mentor to Collins, said, “I moved into town about eight years ago, and E.J. was even a presence at that point. Every town event, he was always there. He just brightens up every area that he’s in.”
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Adds Laura Pointon, president of the Frenchtown Business & Professional Association, “Sometimes I’ll send him a message saying, ‘Hey E.J., we’re going to be here at this time, setting up (for an event),’ and he will show up with his wagon … and he dresses up in the theme of what we’re doing.”
Collins, 30, a lifelong resident of the community, might be spotted participating at a local gathering, cleaning the streets of Frenchtown, or alerting those who live there to potential weather hazards.
Or, he might ride past you with a wagon full of Pokémon toys attached to a bicycle recently donated to him by the community.
The fundraising effort for the new bicycle and wagon was spearheaded by Ed Snyder, a resident of Upper Black Eddy, Pa.
“I was on Facebook, and I saw a picture of E.J’s bike with his trailer,” Ed said. “And I saw that it was like a hand-me-down bike, rope-tied-to-the-trailer deal. I don’t even know him … but I just said, ‘Come on Frenchtown, get with it.’
“I thought he could use a one-up from somebody. And I figured, why not me?”
Ed went to the Cycle Corner of Frenchtown and teamed up with its owner, Dave Bugler, to arrange for the shop to collect in-person donations from customers. He gathered support from the Frenchtown community through online posts, and also donated $100 of his own to the effort.
“I said I would pay for the bike if (the fundraiser) fell through, so the kid wouldn’t get let down,” Ed said.
Fortunately, Ed did not need to pull his wallet out for a second time. According to Bugler, the shop was able to raise enough money to give Collins a bicycle that is fit for a person with special needs within a week’s time.
He also ordered a Burley cargo bike trailer to attach to Collins’ new bicycle.
“E.J. wanted to tow his menagerie of friends around … and he wanted them open much like a regular, pull-behind wagon. And we got lucky that that was available,” Bugler said.
This most recent effort is only one of a countless number of actions members of the Frenchtown community and beyond have taken over the years to support Collins, who has special needs and lost both of his parents in 2018.
Denise helped to establish a budget and a direct support staff for Collins prior to the passing of his parents from various medical ailments.
“I helped his family to apply for eligibility with the Division of Development Disabilities for services,” Denise explained.
She continues to oversee and advocate for him, playing an influential role in ensuring that he did not move out of Frenchtown after his parents died.
“E.J. already had these wonderful relationships within the community, and I just thought that after his parents had passed, we knew it was really important for E.J. to stay in the community,” Denise said. “I think it’s so important that he continues to live in Frenchtown and live independently, because he really does represent not only the community he lives in but the family he grew up in.”
“I know my hometown like the back of my hand,” Collins said. “If I moved to another a town, I’m going to need a map or GPS to tell me where I need to go.”
To help keep Collins in Frenchtown, Denise teamed up with several other community members, including Paul, a member of the Frenchtown Vikings, a group that is both highly active in the borough and in supporting Collins in particular.
“Both my friends and other town members wanted to help in assisting him to start living on his own and get a fresh start here,” Paul said. “There was a lot of donations from people in town, and from the business association, residual businesses (including Sunbeam General Store and The Gourmand Epicerie in Frenchtown), and then just various community members.”
Paul, Denise and others helped to renovate Collins’ apartment — which is partially paid for through housing assistance provided by Hunterdon County — over the course of a couple of months.
“We got him set up so he could start living independently, and it was a large community effort and something I’m really proud to have been a part of,” Paul said.
Denise said Paul and other community members were “phenomenal” in assisting Collins, but also credited Collins himself with helping to modernize the apartment without ever forgetting its previous owners.
“The thing that really stuck out about that whole thing is he really has so much love and respect for family. It is just undeniable,” Denise said. “He wanted to make sure that he had a specific area in the home that was dedicated to his parents. And when we had an open house when the apartment was all done, we invited all of the people in the community and from my agency to come in and he had photo albums to show everybody.”
Another community member that has played an immeasurable role in supporting Collins is Al Kurylka, the former chief of the Frenchtown Police Department. Kurylka said he has been helping Collins and his family for roughly 30 years, improving their lives through actions like facilitating their move from an apartment with “deplorable conditions” to his current apartment at the Frenchtown Commons.
“This family had absolutely very little, and never asked for anything,” Kurylka said. “I took them Christmas trees and they didn’t want it; I took them turkeys and they didn’t want it.
“But this is one of those families that got to a point in their lives where they (were) unable to work. They were not able to do much at all. And E.J., as he started to grow up, had to take more and more care of them.”
As Collins’ responsibilities increased, the support around him did as well. To this day, Kurylka continues to take him for haircuts, get clothes for him and be a source of support during times he needs it most.
“I know how E.J. ticks, and what makes him work — of which, believe me, nobody else will be able to determine because of the volume of time I spent with him over the years,” Kurylka said. “I’ve gotten to the point where I know when he’s having a bad day with whoever he’s dealing with. (I tell him) to go for a walk. And he does that and he calms down. I will either talk to him or send one of my patrol cars to find and talk to him and see what’s going on.”
In reflecting on his special connection to Collins, Kurylka underscored that he could not “think of a better person to do anything for.
“I’m very happy to do it and continue to do it,” he said. “He’s unique in his own way. How he cares and gives, and what he does. Those of us that have done this for him, it’s because of caring to love — of nurturing, so to say, and making sure that his life is good.”
Collins has spent his life following in the footsteps of his father, who served in both the Frenchtown Fire Department and Kingwood Township Volunteer Fire Company.
“I love helping people because it’s part of my goal, and I want to step up and do the best I can to help anyone I need,” Collins said. “And if I see anything, I report it to the police immediately.”
In addition to working at the Frenchtown Market IGA, Collins helps out throughout Frenchtown, such as shoveling snow off the streets and attending community gatherings to ensure all in attendance are safe.
His service is so well-known throughout the borough that he was even included in a 2018 exhibition at the ArtYard that paid tribute to Frenchtown.
“He’s always willing to lend a hand with anything,” said Frenchtown Mayor Brad Myhre. “He’s got a good heart, and he doesn’t miss anything in the community functions. He’s always there.”
“He likes to patrol through town … just walking and making sure everyone’s safe,” Paul added. “It’s just really a beautiful thing to work with somebody whose only concern is really about the town. He really does give back.”
Pointon said that it’s “almost like he works for the borough, but is not on the payroll. In 2019 … the elementary school installed these large scarecrows downtown. And some kids destroyed them, and we didn’t know about it until E.J. posted (online) that some of the scarecrows were destroyed. Then that in turn had some people rally together to fix the scarecrows.
“And we had Pride like three weeks ago … I met someone out to put flags on the poles, and we go out there and E.J.’s out there. And he comes over and says, ‘How can I help?,'” she added.
The borough is currently seeking to create a local community response team that Collins would be involved in, Myhre said.
“He’ll go through the CRT training like everyone else on the team, and he will likely assist with some minor traffic stuff, (and) helping direct people to an emergency shelter … and with the distribution of resources, water, things of that nature,” Myhre explained.
This action is likely far from the last that will be taken to support Collins, who is ubiquitously considered as entrenched in Frenchtown as the Delaware River that runs beside it.
“He’s a member of the community,” Bugler said. “Frenchtown is a pretty safe place for those who have special needs … He’s real pleasant, and he’s a sweetheart.”
Added Paul: “I think I have this close relationship with E.J., but he’s making this impact with everybody else in town. There’s so many people looking out for (E.J.’s) Christmas, E.J.’s birthday — it’s an outpouring of gifts and town love. And it’s a really incredible experience to be a part of, because all you have to say is, ‘E.J. needs something’ or ‘Let’s try to brighten up E.J.’s day for his birthday,’ and the amount of people that want to contribute is pretty awe-inspiring.”
© 2021 Advance Local Media LLC
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