Stepping into the Ewing office of Christine’s Hope For Kids is a step into a world of organized chaos.
Boxes line the walls and hallways, stacked on one another. Used paperback books and once-worn Adidas soccer shoes spill out of their tops. Another room holds the beginnings of the back-to-school rush—backpacks and any supply a child may ever want to stuff inside one. Dozens of brown bags sit at the front of the office, ready to be filled with meals for needy children.
Soon, these backpacks, books, brown bags and shoes will be distributed throughout Mercer County. They’ll be at the Hamilton Area YMCA’s day camp, where children who normally couldn’t afford to attend have received scholarships. They’ll be at Homefront, where gently used shoes have been donated for kids who may not have any. They’ll be at Mercer Street Friends, where a lunch bagged four days earlier may be the only food a child will eat that day.
They’ll be at Womanspace, where officials estimate they have received from Christine’s Hope $20,000 worth of stuffed rabbits, Halloween goodie bags, Christmas stockings, school supplies, pajamas, books and toothbrushes. They’ll be at the Trenton CYO, where a well-worn Harry Potter book could be the recipe for, in the words of one boy, “the best weekend ever.”
And, as soon as this batch leaves, another round of items to be donated will take its place—crammed wherever Jean Gianacaci and her staff can find the space.
In the nearly seven years since Gianacaci and her husband John started their nonprofit, they have donated $600,000 to nearly 130 organizations, most of them in Mercer County. Both numbers are staggering, particularly for an organization with one full-time employee started by a pair of people who had no experience in nonprofits.
Gianacaci prefers not to reflect on what she’s done, partly because there’s plenty more to do and partly because she can’t figure out herself how Christine’s Hope has managed to accomplish what it has.
“I wonder that every day,” Gianacaci said. “Especially when I go back. How have we done all of these things? It’s pretty amazing, but we didn’t do it alone. I didn’t do it. I did not do this by myself.”
There are the hundreds of donors, the scores of volunteers and organizations that have partnered with Christine’s Hope—the body of the nonprofit. But then, there’s the soul—Christine, the namesake.
The younger of Jean and John Gianacaci’s two children, Christine had a loving and outgoing personality. She loved to be needed. She lived to help others, often rushing to the side of a person who seemed depressed or despondent. She particularly gravitated toward children.
Christine had her own issues—she was dyslexic and had an audible tic due to Tourette’s Syndrome—but no one can recall these things ever stifling her compassion for others. Classmates could be mean to her, especially during her years at Timberlane Middle School in Hopewell, but she never lost her faith in humanity. She continued to care whenever someone needed her.
At 22, Christine thought she was doing just that when she traveled to Haiti on a community service trip with a group from Lynn University, where she was a sophomore. On the second day of the trip—Jan. 12, 2010—a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck, centered 16 miles outside of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. At least 100,000 people died, including Christine, three of her friends and two professors from Lynn.
It took officials 28 days to find Christine’s body in the rubble of the Hotel Montana. Around Day 15, the Gianacacis figured their daughter would not be coming home, and started to think about what would come next. That turned out to be Christine’s Hope For Kids, started at Christine’s funeral because Gianacaci couldn’t bear the thought of people wasting money on flowers. But, beyond that, Gianacaci can’t explain why or how Christine’s Hope came to be.
“When you look back at it, we were all in a fog,” Gianacaci said. “I don’t even know how we functioned, let alone started foundations. And I don’t even remember doing it, to be honest.”
The focus of the organization always has been the children of Mercer County, with a philosophy that it wants to provide opportunities for children to help children. Christine’s Hope raises money not for big items, like playgrounds or large-sum scholarships, but for what Gianacaci calls “the little things.” It’s a book for someone who can’t afford one, or a pair of baseball cleats. It’s a pair of pajamas for a child who has had to flee an abusive home in the middle of the night, or a toothbrush.
Christine’s Hope’s biggest fundraiser every year is an annual golf outing, to be held this year on Monday, Sept. 26, at Springdale Golf Club in Princeton. Donations allow Christine’s Hope to keep its office packed and its schedule full. Donors have come to expect nothing less.
“I had one man say, ‘I really love giving you a check…I feel like every donation that you give, a little piece of me is going to those places,’” Gianacaci said. “That stuck with me for years. Every time I give donations, I think all these people are with me.”
Gianacaci may be carrying all her donors around with her, but it’s quite clear that no presence looms larger in her work than Christine’s.
* * *
In October 2009, Christine Gianacaci sat down at a table with her parents, and paged through a catalogue hundreds of pages thick.
The book, released by Lynn University, contained all the possibilities for “J-term,” a two-week period in January when the school sponsors programs for students to experience something new between semesters. Students can go to Italy, work on a Broadway production in New York or really anything that can be spun as educational.
The year before, in January 2009, Christine had traveled to Jamaica, through Lynn, to help children with a group called Food For The Poor. When the 2010 J-term book arrived, Christine already knew what she wanted to do—she wanted to go to Haiti with Food For The Poor.
Her parents tried to talk her out of it. They pointed to all the other opportunities available to her—why go on another community service trip when she already had that experience? Their reasoning only angered her.
“You don’t know what it’s like to go and help people in need,” she said. “You don’t understand the feeling you get on these mission trips. I want to go.”
Her parents relented.
So, in early January 2010, Christine flew to Boca Raton, Florida, where she met the other 13 people from Lynn University bound for Haiti. It was a similar group to the one that traveled to Jamaica in 2009, including the same two professors, Richard Bruno and Patrick Hartwick. A few nights before they left for Haiti, some of the students went to the Boca Ale House to celebrate the start of J-term and toast to a successful Haiti trip. They had no idea what they were in for.
Haiti was the worst place Christine had ever been. Everywhere she turned, she saw something that shocked and saddened her. Naked children urinated on the side of the road. Goats, chickens and other livestock roamed freely throughout the city, eating trash that lined the streets.
The vast poverty captivated Christine. She felt the need to document it, to show people back home what it was like. There were 292 images on the memory card of Christine’s camera when it was recovered. The photos were mostly of two things: the conditions in Haiti and Christine surrounded by children.
On the second day in Haiti, after finishing their day’s work, the group returned to the Hotel Montana in a suburb of Port-au-Prince. Some of the students went to the hotel pool. Normally, Christine would have hung out with the group or maybe checked out the hotel gift shop. But, for some reason, she felt the need to withdraw for a bit. Christine and her roommate, Stephanie Crispinelli, went back to their room.
Once there, she sent a text message to a friend from Lynn: “This is the saddest place I have ever seen.”
Then, Christine called her parents. She told them she was doing fine, but that the conditions in Haiti were worse than she could have imagined. This, without a doubt, was the saddest day of her life, she said.
Eight minutes after the call ended, the earthquake shook Port-au-Prince. The Hotel Montana collapsed, taking Christine and five other members of the Lynn group with it. The students who had gone to the pool all survived.
Sometimes, Gianacaci questions why her daughter was not one of those students. Why didn’t she go to the gift shop? Why didn’t she sit at the pool? Why go back to the room, Christine?
But Gianacaci has come to accept that nature has its ways, there was nothing anyone could have done to stop the earthquake, and if things had to happen this way, at least Gianacaci could share, via phone, some of the final moments of her daughter’s life. Most of all, she takes solace in the fact that she has no one to direct her anger at—so there’s no point in being angry.
“Haiti didn’t kill Christine,” Gianacaci said. “Haiti and the Haitian people didn’t kill Christine. The earthquake killed Christine. We have no one to blame.”
* * *
About a half hour after the Gianacacis spoke to Christine, they received a call from Jean’s brother.
“Is Christine in Haiti yet?” he asked.
He told Gianacaci that there was an earthquake in Haiti, and the TV newspeople were saying there was total devastation. Gianacaci assured her brother that Christine was fine; they had just spoken with her.
The Gianacacis turned on the television. News programs showed images of Port-au-Prince flattened. The city had no electricity and little means to contact the outside world. Gianacaci called Christine’s mobile phone. No answer. She tried three more times. No answer. She called Lynn University, and again, no answer.
About two hours later, a representative from Lynn called the Gianacacis to say they were unable to make contact with the group but everything should be fine. Shortly thereafter, someone from Food For The Poor called to say someone on the ground in Haiti had told them that the group had been safely dropped off at the Hotel Montana. No one knew yet that the Montana had collapsed.
The uncertainty grew to be too much, and the Gianacacis booked a flight to Florida for the next morning. They were the first to arrive at Lynn, where they learned eight students had survived the earthquake. A resident of Boca Raton lent Lynn a private plane to retrieve the students from Haiti.
The students who survived came back to Boca Raton two days after the earthquake. They were in shock, and couldn’t remember much of what had happened. The earthquake had struck at dusk, and the darkness made everything more confusing. They didn’t know who was in the building or if anyone had managed to escape it. One girl said she had been in Christine’s room moments before the earthquake, borrowing a hairdryer. She was walking down the staircase when the earthquake’s power threw her out of the building, which collapsed behind her.
The Gianacacis returned from Florida, without Christine. They were added to a daily 4 p.m. conference call with the State Department, held to update people with the latest information. They would sit at their dining room table in Hopewell Township, and listen as a government representative would list, one-by-one, what recovery workers in Haiti had found that day. One body, female, Haitian. One suitcase, black. One computer. One body, male, white, Canadian.
For an hour, the list would go on, a torturous exercise when any moment could be the one the Gianacacis would learn their daughter was alive—or dead. They called in every day for four weeks.
Twenty-seven days after the earthquake, the Gianacacis received a phone call from the family of Courtney Hayes, another missing Lynn student. Workers had found Hayes dead in the remains of the Hotel Montana. The next day, they found Christine and Crispinelli, together. Three days after that, they found Britney Gengel, the final missing Lynn student. Soon thereafter, they found Bruno and Hartwick.
The United States government flew the six bodies home together on Valentine’s Day 2010.
“That’s when it all set in,” Gianacaci said. “It set in, ‘Our daughter’s dead. Oh my God, our daughter’s dead.’”
The next few weeks seemed to last even longer than the preceding month. A fog set in as the Gianacacis operated on auto-pilot, funeral after funeral, memorial service after memorial service, each of the families attending the memorial for the others’ children. During a ceremony at Lynn University, school officials notified the families of their plans to build a memorial in Boca Raton that would honor those who died in Haiti.
The Gianacacis had started to think about what they wanted to do to honor Christine before her body had been recovered, and when writing her obituary, they decided to form Christine’s Hope For Kids. They knew they wanted to help children, and they wanted to keep the focus local.
“It was an easy pick, really,” Gianacaci said. “What’s better than helping a kid? Nothing.”
Gianacaci often gets asked why she decided to help children in Mercer County when her daughter died aiding kids in Haiti. But she’s not alone. All four families formed foundations after their daughters’ deaths. Only Gengel’s foundation, Be Like Brit, went back to Haiti.
Gianacaci did travel to Haiti herself, in 2015. It was much the way Christine had described it. The naked children were still there. So were the garbage and the goats and the chickens.
Gianacaci felt sorrow, but she also felt reaffirmation. She and John had made the right choice for Christine’s Hope For Kids. So much time and money and resources had been spent on Haiti with no discernible improvement. She had seen the difference they could make at home, and could ensure they were making a difference by following the course of every dollar Christine’s Hope For Kids had donated.
Even better, the local focus meant she would never have to set foot in Haiti again.
“Yeah. I went there once,” Gianacaci said. “I would never go back.”
* * *
At Christine’s funeral, donations poured in for Christine’s Hope For Kids.
The magnitude of the response almost immediately overrode Gianacaci’s thought that the foundation would be a part-time gig. There was so much to do. She started out making donations to local YMCAs, the Boys and Girls Club and other large organizations. But the more Gianacaci looked around, the more needs she saw. In December 2010, she arranged a holiday stocking drive. Then she started Pennies From Heaven, an in-school program where children donate pennies throughout the year. It was designed to show the power of collective effort and will.
Each new program spawned another idea. Volunteers and donors would step forward with suggestions—lightly used sports shoes, used book fairs, backpack drives. Christine’s Hope started doing so many programs at so many places that items for the foundation had taken over the Gianacacis’ house. John suggested they look for office space.
The Jingoli family gave them a break on a suite in the Mountain View Office Park in Ewing, which they own. Gianacaci brought in part-time help and, later, her first full-time employee. Christine’s Hope probably could use more workers, but Gianacaci would rather have a manic schedule and save the money.
“I don’t want to spend money,” Gianacaci said. “I want the money to go to the kids.”
To accomplish what it has, Christine’s Hope has depended on its volunteers, many of whom are schoolchildren. Trenton Catholic Academy’s Lower School runs a Pajama Day on the anniversary of the Haiti earthquake that raises around $1,000 for Christine’s Hope each year. During the day, TCA’s 8th graders also pack pajama bags for Womanspace.
TCA Lower School director Anne Reap said the children—some of whom have benefited from Christine’s Hope programs themselves—relish the chance to help out their peers.
“It’s important for the kids to be able to help the community,” Reap said. “It’s a way of continuing Christine’s legacy of helping children in need.”
Such is the case across Mercer County. Hopewell Valley Central High School senior Claire King has volunteered for Christine’s Hope for six years, ever since she heard Christine’s story and felt compelled to donate $40 she raised selling rock candy. Soon, King had her siblings John, Elizabeth and David involved, with the four children buying backpacks, crayons, rulers and other school supplies to give to Christine’s Hope.
The next year, as a 7th grader, King started a community service club at Timberlane Middle School, with Christine’s Hope For Kids in mind. The club still exists. Two years later, in 2013, King and Elizabeth, then a senior, started a Christine’s Hope Club at HVCHS. The Christine’s Hope Club still meets for 50 minutes every Wednesday during the school year, listening to speakers from area nonprofits or working on a charity project. King said it is one of the most active clubs at HVCHS.
The King children stayed so involved with Christine’s Hope because it was different from other community service they had done.
“It’s really important to be bigger than yourself,” King said. “It’s ingrained in us that one person can make a difference, but you don’t really see it happening. With this club, you see it happen all the time.”
King said she sees it at the Christine’s Hope book fairs in Trenton, where children hesitate to take free books because they aren’t used to someone thinking about them. Or in the children at Capital Health Medical Center in Hopewell who brighten at the sight of a Christine’s Hope care package full of crayons, coloring books and teddy bears.
That reaction was what hooked Christine to community service, and her legacy lives on in the scores of Mercer County children who have come to love volunteering because of her foundation.
“Most of the volunteers are in middle school and high school,” King said. “Christine was the same age as us, and she was doing good in the world. Without her, I don’t think I would be involved in the community. She’s such an inspiration. There was no Christine’s Hope For Kids club for her. She was doing it all on her own.”
* * *
At 65, Jean Gianacaci doesn’t know how much longer she can keep up her current pace.
The physical toll of lugging boxes, sorting items, going to event after event has started to affect her. John also has moved to Florida, where he works in the financial industry. Gianacaci lives in Florida part time.
They have started to make arrangements to ensure Christine’s Hope For Kids can survive financially even if they are not directly involved. But Gianacaci cautions that she can’t foresee herself ever leaving Mercer County fulltime, let alone stopping work with Christine’s Hope. Her family has lived in Hopewell Valley for five generations. Her parents still live in Hopewell Borough. The Gianacacis’ son, J.P., lives nearby in Flemington, with their 6-year-old grandchild.
She promises that as long as the foundation has donors, she will ensure Christine’s Hope For Kids lives on. And, really, she doesn’t have a choice in the matter. She never included running a foundation in her life plans but knows she isn’t the one calling the shots.
Just like that day spent around the table with a J-term catalogue back in October 2009, it’s all about what Christine wants.
“We’re just continuing what Christine started,” Gianacaci said. “We’re just the delivery people. This is Christine pushing this train. She’s pushing us to go here, go there, don’t do this, don’t do that. Just like she did when she was around. So, nothing’s changed. She tells us where she wants to go, and if we listen, we’ll hear her.”
For more information on the annual golf fundraiser or to register, go online to christineshope.org or call (609) 406-7861.