Biggianis find helping homeless is their bag N.J. family's night out showed them the real need

December 30, 1992|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- It started as a family outing to Ne York City, a rare chance to see a Broadway musical and to show nTC the kids Manhattan for the first time.

It was a big deal for the Biggiani clan because Jeff Biggiani, 37, a plumber from East Hanover, didn't always have the money to treat his wife and eight children, ages 2 to 19, to a night on the town. On this night, about four weeks ago, Jeff and Debbie Biggiani took their six oldest children to see "Phantom of the Opera."

But by the time the early-December evening was over, it had turned into a lesson in privilege vs. poverty. And the Biggianis decided to start what is becoming a region-wide campaign to help homeless people, a mission that reached Atlantic City yesterday.

"We were driving out of the Lincoln Tunnel and the kids saw all the homeless people just lying there in cardboard boxes," said Mr. Biggiani, a burly man who was wearing a flannel shirt and jeans. "They had never seen anything like that before. They wanted to know if there was anything we could do to help."

The Biggianis decided then and there to give up their family vacation, the one they had spent years saving for, dropping their spare change into a big glass jar at home.

With the $1,000 or so in vacation money, along with donations from friends, the Biggianis bought sleeping bags -- more than 500 -- persuading the Kansas-based Coleman camping equipment company to sell them the bags at $18.50 apiece. And, over the last three weeks, Mr. Biggiani, his wife and their children -- a family that had never been very involved with charitable giving -- have handed out the sleeping bags to people who live in boxes, under tunnels, in abandoned buildings and on the streets.

They have been to Manhattan twice, to Newark, N.J., and to Morristown, N.J. They have collected more than $15,000, "every penny of which we are spending on sleeping bags," Mr. Biggiani said. The family has even set up a hot line -- (800) 541-WARM.

Yesterday, the Biggianis showed up in Atlantic City. And they made Jean Webster's day.

"Six years, I've been waiting for this. Six years, I've been calling everywhere for sleeping bags," said Ms. Webster, 57, who runs a soup kitchen out of her tiny Atlantic City apartment.

Each day, Ms. Webster, a chef in the cafeteria at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner to more than a hundred poor and homeless people. She sends them out into the cold again with blankets or scarves or motherly reminders to wear their hats.

So when the Biggianis offered to come down and give out about 60 blue sleeping bags with flannel lining, Ms. Webster could not have been more receptive.

"I've been giving out blankets when I can get them," said Ms. Webster, as she dished out macaroni and cheese, peas and ham. "I only got one blanket to my name, myself. Over the years, I'd ask people for sleeping bags, and people'd make promises, but then they don't keep them."

The Biggianis kept their promise.

One beneficiary was William Lee, 34, of Philadelphia, who came to Atlantic City nine months ago looking for work. Mr. Lee, who limps from gunshot wounds he received in Philadelphia, has been homeless for most of that time.

"I stay in an abandoned house most times," said Mr. Lee, who had blue stitches under his left eye from a recent fight outside an Atlantic City homeless shelter. "This bag is a good thing. It's better than having to lie on old blankets."

Eric King, a 27-year-old with a deep scar on the bridge of his nose from a stabbing injury, has been sleeping on the sidewalk on St. James Place, off and on, for the last two years. That's when he lost his job as a Taj Mahal elevator operator -- "used to take stars up, like Michael Jackson and Wayne Newton," he said.

"I'm glad to get this sleeping bag," said Mr. King, who is on welfare and food stamps. "It's just nice that they gave us something. Most people don't give us much."

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