Visit from the city
NORTH WILDWOOD - The rain is coming down in sheets, but Jeanie and Vince Hubach, 48 and 47, of Drexel Hill, are nonchalant. The three dozen children coming from West Philadelphia for the day are still on their way. The weather will improve, the lifeguards
NORTH WILDWOOD - The rain is coming down in sheets, but Jeanie and Vince Hubach, 48 and 47, of Drexel Hill, are nonchalant. The three dozen children coming from West Philadelphia for the day are still on their way. The weather will improve, the lifeguards assured them. They are similarly nonchalant about their mission to bring city kids to the Shore for a day. They did it for four summers in Ocean City, 50 to 100 kids a day, Monday through Thursday, on beachfront property they had purchased for that purpose. They called it Angels on the Atlantic. In 2009, when the city of Ocean City and neighbors cooled - to put it mildly - to their expanding mission, the Hubachs ultimately found a new base in North Wildwood, where the historic but run-down Children's Fresh Air Home is undergoing renovation. The Hubachs brought their "If Just for a Day" concept and are involved with raising money to restart the two-week overnight trips the North Wildwood home has been sponsoring for nearly a century.
Who are you guys, and how did you two come to do this?
Vince: We're two normal people. We live in Delaware County. We each own our own businesses (Vince, a restaurant equipment company; Jeanie is a personal assistant to two families). We don't have any children - that's probably a big reason why we want to reach out to kids.
Jeanie: We originally started Angels on the Atlantic, which was based out of Ocean City. My husband and I purchased two beachfront lots, one had a restaurant on it, Sugars. We ran the restaurant to raise funds to bring the children to the beach. We had between 55 and 100 kids a day, Monday through Thursday. We would shut the restaurant down between 11 and 1 to feed the kids. Over 5,000 kids came through. Until 2009. The program wasn't working with the city of Ocean City.
We became friends with Angel (Daniels) and Ronald Gelzunas, board members here. We knew this Fresh Air Home has been closed for six years. They weren't really doing anything with the home. We thought, what a perfect fit. How about if we start a day program?
How did you get the idea in the first place?
Vince: I set up a lot of the bodegas and corner stores in Philly, Camden, Newark. I'd always see kids hanging out on hot summer days. Kids would start bothering us, saying give me a soda, give me this. I would be, the store's not even open yet. Why don't you kids go to the beach or something. They be like, beach? Where's there? Like it was on the moon. It kind of always stuck with us.
Some rarely experience the Shore, something that's so much a part of most Philadelphians' lives.
Jeanie: That's why we do it. These kids have enough going on in their lives. They're not allowed out of a one-block radius. The rec centers are their only havens. When they come down here, their defenses are completely down. They have fun.
Vince: The biggest thing we hear from kids is they would always thank us, not for a free hamburger, not for a T-shirt, but for making them feel welcome. We're not used to that. We go places, we don't think, "Am I welcome?"
The Fresh Air Home has always been an overnight program. What has to be done to revive that?
Vince: The biggest problem with the house is that the foundation has settled. The whole house from the first floor up has to be lifted, the foundation demolished, a new foundation put in, and the house put back down. We're putting in modern systems like air-conditioning and plumbing, electrical.
Has there ever been any issue with neighbors, zoning, anything like that?
Jeanie: No, the neighbors have been very nice about it.
What happened in Ocean City?
Jeanie: There were some issues with - the program became too successful.
Vince: They didn't really want all the kids on the beach all the time. There were a few neighbors that became very vocal. We never wanted anyone to know outside of us. We wanted to preserve the program.
How did they stop it?
Vince: They were going to fine us $1,000 a day for every bus that pulled onto our own property and dropped off kids for a free day at the beach. They were going to fine us $1,000 a day for every porta-potty we had for the convenience of the children. They were going to fine us $1,000 a day for a cooler we had out on the beach, which is our property. It was a battle.
Jeanie: We didn't want the children to know or their parents.
(Both the Hubachs and a group of neighbors filed suit, with Superior Court Judge Valerie Armstrong ruling that the city was within its rights to restrict activities on the property, including the Hubachs' plan for a 6,000-square-foot pavilion, in a beach and dune zone. An appellate court agreed, saying the planned structure was not permitted by city code "irrespective of the laudable purposes for which Angels sought to construct the pavilion." The suit was ultimately settled, with the city agreeing to drop all but one of 16 violations.)
At a certain point, you found this and said, let's do it here. That solved a lot of problems.
Jeanie: We're just normal people. We just focused on positive stuff. It was a bad time. It was two years. The day we had our kickoff one summer, they said, 'You have no idea what's going to happen if you bring that bus here.' So we canceled it.
Vince: If we win the lottery, we'd go back to Ocean City and fight them. We still own the property, 9-11 Beach Rd. We actually just listed it. We put it behind us and listed it.
What about today? It's raining.
Jeanie: That's OK. The sun will come out. We're going to the beach as long as it's not thunder and lightning. A lot of these children have not been to the beach. Rain is not going to stop them.
(This interview was edited and condensed.)