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Good neighbors rally to help out

Erin and Bruce Aquilina and three of their children left their nearly snowless Town of Tonawanda neighborhood Saturday and headed south to help strangers suffering under the weight of tons of snow.

As they dug out one home on Aurora Avenue in West Seneca, they heard via Facebook about another resident of the street who needed help. So off they went.

When the shoveling was done, they came face-to-face with a woman named Rose, who thanked them. They also made sure Rose had the heart medication she needed, wished her a happy 95th birthday, then went looking for someone else to help.

What makes that anecdote news is not that it was so unusual, but that it was so commonplace. The storm that left thousands stranded and in danger while leaving thousands more untouched and unaffected has led many to look for ways to help. Their efforts have included social-media drives to neighborhood shovel brigades.

The outpouring has been overwhelming.

While neighbors reached out to help neighbors Saturday, you were just as likely to see strangers helping strangers, from Hamburg to South Buffalo, West Seneca to Orchard Park.

“We didn’t get any snow, so we got to help, right?” said Brianna Savage, 22, of Williamsville.

Brianna and her mother, Colleen, were among the nearly 300 who enlisted in the Shovel Brigade Mob organized by the Old First Ward Community Association to help dig out South Buffalo on Saturday.

Volunteers – a few who came from as far away as Albany and Pittsburgh – helped shovel walkways, dig out cars and check on the welfare of residents who haven’t been out of their homes for days, said Kate Heidinger, a brigade spokeswoman.

By the end of the day, volunteers reached some 400 South Buffalo homeowners in need of help.

In fact, the response was so overwhelming, some volunteers were even turned back as the day wore on.

“When people call, you have to answer,” said Bill Parke, 48, of North Buffalo, who showed up Saturday armed with his roof rake. “These are our neighbors.”

Shawn Barnum came from Kenmore.

“There’s a lot of stuff I could be doing around the house, but this is a lot more important,” said Barnum, 39. “I felt like I’ve been sitting in the Northtowns on the sidelines not being able to help.”

Help has largely come by way of social media.

Thousands of people took to social media to coordinate efforts and get help to people snowed in and in need of assistance.

Erin Aquilina started the Facebook group “WNY November 2014 Storm Help” early last week as a clearinghouse for people needing help and offering help.

“She was just trying to do all she could do as a stay-at-home mom,” her husband said.

As of Friday, the page counted roughly 7,000 members.

The posts came in two categories: offering help or asking for help. Jason Lee was offering.

“I will be in the Depew, Cheektowaga, West Seneca area around 9:30 tomorrow morning not looking to make money but rather help I have a plow truck, if you would like to donate for gas great if not I will still work my ass off to get you out,” said his post Thursday, which more than 600 people “liked.”

Meanwhile, several people set up an event page to help coordinate relief efforts.

More than 100 people joined the page, both those looking for help and those willing to lend a helping hand with a shovel.

Yoga instructor Megan Callahan set up a page to try and connect people across the massive area affected by the storm, specifically for those in the heavily hit suburban communities.

There is so much need for assistance right now, people are forced to rely on each other, Callahan said.

“There are a lot of things that are not 911 emergencies, but pretty close,” Callahan said. “We are seeing report after report of roofs cracking, people running out of medication. There’s more than we can even deal with.”

“It’s massive,” she added. “And it just keeps going. We’re really trying to find the most urgent needs.”

At Saturday’s Shovel Brigade, volunteers arrived at the Old First Ward Community Association on Republic Street and were deployed to nearby streets in South Buffalo, where many residents reached out to the brigade online.

The mob armed with shovels appeared to come out of nowhere to dig out Eric Berta’s driveway on Knoerl Avenue.

“I looked out my window ,and there were four of them. I couldn’t believe it,” said Berta, 32. “It took them 15 to 20 minutes and they left. It was awesome.”

The crew of Bob Hellwitz, the Rev. Jud Weiksnar and John Paul Kenney were among the volunteers on Sage Street. The three removed snow from porch stairs, shoveled paths and helped Nick Melligan dig out his vehicle.

“This is great,” Melligan said of the brigade. “It’s going to help a lot of people still trapped in their homes.”

Megan Spiegelhoff and Rachael Pollinger, roommates from North Buffalo, found themselves on Mineral Springs Road Saturday helping Paul Frankenberger remove the snow from the end of his driveway.

“Beautiful,” Frankenberger said of the extra help. “I was ready to start paying someone to do it, because it’s just getting to be too much.”

Another effort in the Town of Tonawanda aimed to collect supplies – food, blankets and shovels - for people who have been snowed in and may not be able to get to the store.

Jennifer Beyer and Denise Poole spent Friday evening and Saturday morning collecting goods at the River Road Fire Hall.

As of Saturday morning, they had collected boxes full of cereal, baby food and canned goods.

Beyer and Poole also planned to bring the effort to the South Line Fire District in Cheektowaga for firefighters there to distribute.

“We have more than we thought,” Beyer said. “Someone today brought four bags. The people that are coming are bringing tons of stuff in.”

And rather than just work from home at their computer, the Aquilinas and three of their boys armed themselves with shovels Friday and started looking for people who needed help – those like Rose in West Seneca.

They found plenty. The Aquilinas are not looking to get paid for their efforts, but they are OK with that.

“Rose said she would pray for us,” Bruce Aquilina said. “That’s good. We have a lot of children.”