Since they met during their gap year in Israel, Deena Buechler and Henry Bernstein have done lots of fun dating things. This past September, their thoughts turned to ways they could augment their relationship by doing chesed together. Along came the Emmy Award-winning Rachael Ray show. Buechler, a West Orange resident, graduate of Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School and Binghamton University, and Bernstein were part of the live studio audience in September, when Ray donated $100 bills to the audience members, suggesting that they go out and pay it forward.
In October, someone from the studio contacted the couple to find out what they had done with their $100. As it turned out, since they had just started thinking of ways to start a chesed project together two weeks before their attendance at the show, they had taken that money and brought their idea to fruition. They began making care bags and distributing them to the homeless.
The studio asked the couple to send in a small video thanking Rachael and showing what they had done with the money. They were then called to come in as guests at the New York CBS studio on Monday, November 14. Each audience member again went home with $100 to pay forward. Ray kissed Buechler and Bernstein, called them her heroes and gifted them $200 to continue their work with the homeless.
Bernstein, of Woodmere, Long Island, is a graduate of the HAFTR Hebrew Academy and Queens College. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in biomedical engineering at City College. He and Buechler keep 10 gift bags in their cars at all times. They hand out bags to homeless people they spot on the side of the road. If the people are sleeping, they leave the bag next to them. If they are hostile, they try to calm them. Some people refuse the bags, others ask for money. Most are appreciative.
Not just angels passing through, Buechler and Bernstein try to engage the people they meet in small conversations. Their intention is to lighten their day. “Most people,” Buechler comments, “simply walk by the homeless.” Bernstein added, “It feels really amazing knowing such a small thing as giving someone a bag can make such a difference and change someone’s mood and outlook.” He added a short story. “Earlier in the week I stopped the car and got out to give a homeless man a bag. He was scared and asked what I wanted, what he had done wrong. The man went on, ‘What is it, is it bad?’” After calming him and reassuring him that he was just giving him a gift, the man introduced himself, saying, “Hi, my name is Larry.” Each bag the couple distributes has a handwritten note inside reading, “Smile! You are amazing! Don’t ever forget it!”
Asked how much time they devote to the project, Buechler estimated the two put in about one evening a month to stock bags. After spending the cash from Ray’s show, they continued by using their own money. The two started the project with bags they found in their homes, stocking them with items they had on hand, such as small toiletries, socks and combs, plus small food items. Their hope is to get others involved. Since the show aired, they have already received kudos from groups such as NCSY in Canada, which wants in on the project.
Graduates of a summer culinary cooking course, Buechler and Bernstein have done volunteer work in soup kitchens over the years. Their dream is to open a soup kitchen and Buechler excitedly declared she also has a dream of opening a barber shop for the homeless.
Buechler is currently the manager of Chocolate Works in Livingston. This all ties the story together in a word…sweet.
For those wishing to contribute to the Buechler/Bernstein project, go to ourbagprojec[email protected] The couple will be accepting monetary donations, as well as donations of bags, non-perishable food items, toiletries and blankets. Personal notes to the homeless will also be accepted for inclusion in the bags.
To view the couple on the Rachael Ray show, go to http://www.rachaelrayshow.com/lifestyle/23882_how_can_i_help_homeless_people/.
By Sharon Mark Cohen