A little over a year ago, Hurricane Sandy devastated coastal New Jersey and New York. While the destruction wrought by the storm was sadly overwhelming, the inspiring and immediate response proved that the East Coast surf community was tighter than anyone ever imagined. Among those leading both the logistical and philosophical charge for relief and recovery were Cory Higgins and Jeremy DeFilippis , two Southern New Jersey natives who run the Jetty apparel brand. Together with Long Beach Island photographer Ann Coen, the trio formed Jetty Rock Foundation earlier this year, formalizing a philanthropic mission that’s thrived since the first Unite & Rebuild fundraising T-shirts were printed less than 48 hours after Sandy rolled through.
With over $325,000 donated directly to victims of the storm — and a humble, grassroots vibe unparalleled in the surf world — the organization is worth a closer look. ESM checked in with these three selfless souls, who’ve turned their personal Call To Action into a community-wide effort that should inspire anyone looking to give back.
ESM: Was Hurricane Sandy the primary catalyst for getting Jetty Rock Foundation going?
Jeremy DeFilippis: Absolutely. Even though charity was one of the pillars our brand was built on, Sandy magnified and elevated our dedication to the community. And not just during the storm but for the life of our brand.
Cory Higgins: I would say it was the main catalyst. Charity has been a big part of Jetty for as long as I can remember, and we had discussed starting a non-profit for years. Sandy just sparked it to finally happen.
ESM: Give us an idea of the actual logistics behind starting a separate non-profit.
Cory Higgins: Once we started raising serious money, we found out pretty fast that all donations had to go to a 501(c)(3) — we couldn’t donate directly to a family or person in need. That’s about when it was solidified that we had to start Jetty Rock so we didn’t have limitations on who or where to donate the funds.
JD: We were so deep into our effort that we really didn’t think about the legality of what we were doing. People needed help, and we were cutting any red tape that we needed to. A few months into the ordeal, we saw some other non-profits popping up and said, “We need to form a non-profit and run all of the charitable events and efforts through it.” We got the wheels turning in February and applied through Legalzoom in March, which proved to be a big mistake. They “lost” our application twice and it ended up taking months to actually form Jetty Rock Foundation, Inc. I’m an accountant and could have done the paperwork myself, but figured that we would pay a small premium and let the experts handle it. They actually mailed our forms to the state of New Jersey and said that the package was lost. We asked to track it and they said that they do not track their packages! In the end, we had Jetty Rock incorporated in June and are awaiting official 501(c)(3) status from the IRS, who acknowledged that they have received our application and cashed our check for $850.
ESM: What are the operational benefits of having a separate philanthropic arm?
JD: For one, instant credibility. It’s obviously not simple to just form a non-profit. People are more willing to donate when you have that tax ID number and 501(c)(3) status. The operational benefit lies in the fact that we can use the Jetty brand and its existing popularity, social media, and website to promote our charitable efforts and garner instant support and awareness. In essence, the brand can sustain those “what-would-be” expenses to the Foundation, and then the Foundation can donate a higher percentage of the funds raised. It’s a bit of a fine line, but we can walk it. A good example is that the Jetty Rock Foundation does not have a separate website; rather, it lies embedded in www.JettyLife.com.
CH: Keeping the books separated is a big part. It’s also important for everyone to know and see that Jetty is an apparel brand and the Jetty Rock Foundation is the philanthropic arm of our apparel brand.
ESM: Why involve someone outside the brand like Ann Coen at the Foundation’s executive level?
JD: We definitely wanted to avoid conflict of interest and were well aware of the law in that respect. Cory and I can be part of the foundation and make decisions, operate, etc. But at the end of the day, we definitely wanted to have some outside influence. And who better then a super-active community member like Ann Coen that we can trust and depend on to get things accomplished. Her ability to bring photography to the equation is secondary to her ability to assess situations and make things happen.
CH: Ann has been so important and involved in everything we’ve been doing out here since the beginning — not just since Sandy but before that, all through the life of Jetty And she’s a straight shooter who gets things accomplished. Naming her as President just made sense to us. We’re all on the same page with our mission and goals and we know we can trust her to execute and represent.
ESM: Ann, how did you react to being nominated as president?
Ann Coen: I was definitely surprised and honored that they asked me to be President. I had expressed interest in helping out when Cory and Jeremy first mentioned the non-profit, but we didn’t talk about it again until it was official. We’re all learning so much, especially from Catherine Murphy and Jon Rose of Waves For Water; Catherine has been mentoring me a bit, which is amazing. She and Jon are a wealth of knowledge and their wisdom has already helped us move forward. We’re also fortunate to have such a great core group on LBI; without some of the teachers and leaders, we wouldn’t be able to get the intelligence we need in order to help.
ESM: Is Jetty Rock’s primary focus on LBI and Ocean County?
JD: Yes, the focus is heavy on Southern Ocean County. And it has to be because one year after Sandy, there are still so many people in need in our own backyard. That doesn’t mean that we don’t branch out occasionally and help people in Lavallette or Seaside. We focus on helping the active members of our community who are in need, and sometimes there are cases outside of the area where we just say, “We have to help that person or family.” The focus is geographic to some extent, but the ultimate decisions concerning whom to help lie in how active those people are in their communities.
CH: Right now in the short term our focus is definitely on the LBI/Ocean County area. This is where our hearts are right now. Sandy relief efforts aren’t going to end any time soon, so that needs to be our focus. But long term, I’m sure we’ll be reaching out and helping people and communities well outside of the Ocean County area.
AC: We’re just focusing on the need that is closest to home right now.
ESM: What criteria determine whether Jetty Rock will support or initiate a project?
AC: So far, all projects have been our ideas. But people are starting to come forward to ask about new ones. So we sit down and decide if we want to do it and how it could work with our mission statement.
JD: That’s exactly why we kept the office to three directors. We wanted to be able to meet every other week, assess situations, and make quick decisions. We didn’t want to be sitting around a round table of 20 board members arguing over whom to help. Raise the funds and get the money to those in need.
CH: We’re also relying heavily on our inner circle and the Waves For Water crew for suggestions of people to help and ideas for projects.
ESM: What projects are you proudest of?
JD: Our back-to-school initiative is one that I see happening annually. How rad is it for a kid to open a package in the mail and get a bunch of school supplies and a gift certificate to a local surf shop? It helps them, it helps our customers, and it helps our local economy. There is also the other part of our mission to beautify our community, so I'm proud that we can contribute to special events like dune grass planting. We’re working on another project where we had a “Welcome to Long Beach Island” sign built from reclaimed wood. It runs on solar-powered lights and looks awesome. We are trying to legally sink it into the center of LBI along with some killer landscaping and hope that awakens some town officials as far as the importance of how the gateway to our tourist destination looks and feels.
AC: I’m also super proud of our back-to-school initiative. We got names of some of the hardest-hit families in the Barnegat, Stafford, LBI, and Little Egg Harbor areas and boosted the local economy while also helping needy kids.
CH: That project — identifying 86 kids and hooking them up — is tops for me, too.
ESM: Are micro-level projects like that the most rewarding?
JD: To be honest, it’s all rewarding. We received intel from a local high school principal last month that two students were in really bad situations: no winter clothes or shoes right when the weather was changing. Within two days, we had new clothes and shoes delivered directly to them… on, it just so happened, one of the student’s birthdays. This micro-project only cost $646, but the feeling of helping these young people so quickly was just as fulfilling as that of a larger project.
CH: I agree, just because it’s more hands-on and widespread — and you can relate to it more. The bigger donations are great, and I know they help, but there’s something about helping a big segment of kids that’s really rewarding.
AC: Seeing the thank-you cards and personal emails we received after the back-to-school initiative was so heartwarming. I felt like we truly helped.
ESM: How have locals responded to Jetty Rock?
JD: We’ve been so busy initiating and executing projects that we haven’t spent a ton of time promoting it. Thankfully, the local newspapers cover it and our loyal Jetty fans read and understand. I think the response has been wonderful. Ann single-handedly ran a kick-off coming-out party at the Surflight Theatre Annex this summer that had great support. It’s not always easy to get everyone informed about the Jetty Rock Foundation and its association with Jetty, which is why we’re so thankful to our friends in the media. We’re working very closely with local high schools and municipalities, and the nice thing is that we form a new personal relationship with every individual that we help. Then, when those people get back on their feet, they volunteer, too. It’s such a cool thing to see the entire evolution of the situation.
CH: The local response has been massive — too many new partnerships to recount. We’ve definitely made a name for ourselves in the local community and gained a crazy amount of awareness.
ESM: To date, how much money has been donated through the Jetty Rock Foundation?
JD: $62,379.20 as of November 20th, which is embedded in the $320,226.25 that Jetty has donated since two days after the storm.
CH: Up-to-the-minute and by-the-penny timelines can be found on our www.JettyLife.com website.
ESM: Have any projects moved beyond the realm of Hurricane Sandy recovery yet?
JD: I think the beautification aspect of our mission will evolve, but I still consider that directly related to Sandy. We’ve also initiated scholarship programs with two local high schools. Those will activate in June. We offer three scholarships under the Jetty Get Rad! Scholarships [umbrella]. They are in the areas of business, leadership, and creativity, and we make the guidelines fairly strict so that we can easily identify the students who truly deserve them. We’ve been a part of the Southern Regional High School scholarship program for a few years, and being a part of a night where they hand out over $500,000 in scholarship money from the local community is just awesome.
CH: [Like Jeremy said], we have one beautification project we’re working on that is semi-related to Sandy — if we pull it off, we’ll be extremely proud. In the future, I’m really looking forward to moving on to non-Sandy-related projects. The options and creativity with those projects is endless, so it’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a while, but just moving on from Sandy will be rewarding enough.
ESM: With the one-year anniversary of the storm behind you, does it still feel like a generation-defining event?
JD: It definitely is a generation-defining event. We’re not caught up in patting ourselves on the back for activating and rallying the community. What we are caught up in is seeing this thing through. By that I mean well beyond the physical damage, to the point where we have more of a social, environmental, and political impact. We love where we live and deserve to have a larger say in beach replenishment, how our municipalities look and run, and how our region is marketed to tourists. We’ve recovered somewhat better in comparison to some other areas, but that said, there are still so many people out of their homes. It’s sometimes tough to identify the primary vs. secondary homeowners in our areas, but we’re working hard to do so. From a housing standpoint, it will take more then a few years to fully recover, but our movement doesn’t stop there. Tourism is incredibly important in our region, and people do not want to travel to a non-welcoming place. We have so much to offer — it just needs to be communicated through creative marketing. We’re not simply bouncing back; I truly believe that, within the next five years, we will have our region back to where it was in the mid ‘80s as far as popularity and economy.
CH: Sandy is without a doubt a generation-defining event in our area. The younger generation stepped up big time around here, and I couldn’t be more proud of that. We got lucky here in that regard; I know some areas had other hurdles, like townships not being as cooperative, so it was harder for them to pull together and get things done. Overall, I think the Northeast did a solid job of bouncing back this past summer. That’s the mentality up here: we’re too stubborn to sit back and accept anything less. However, the recovery put a spotlight on some other weak points of our area, like the tourism industry in general and marketing all the amazing reasons you want to visit our region. In the end, many positives will come out of all of this. It’s just going to take a lot of hard work to get there.