|An Apple A Day|
|By Matt Schuman, New Jersey Department of Corrections|
Sergeant Kevin Wernik of Bayside State Prison and a bunch of his colleagues from the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) have delivered teddy bears to youthful patients in St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children just in time for the holiday season, prepared and served meals at the Ronald McDonald House and participated in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life.
“I think about who we are as a Department,” said Wernik, an NJDOC employee since 1998. “There are so many good people, family people, people who want to help. The men and women who take part in these events volunteer their time, do whatever needs to be done and don’t ask for anything in return.
“Our goal is to brighten a child’s day,” he continued. “In doing so, hopefully we brighten the day for the child’s parents as well.”
And it all started with Wernik feeding an apple to a horse.
The horse was named Joe N Trouble – Joey, for short – a quarter horse who was born in South Dakota. That was 30 years ago.
An altogether different story began to unfold in 2009 along Route 47 in Maurice River Township, a couple miles south of Southern State Correctional Facility, where Wernik was working at the time.
During the commute to the prison each afternoon, Wernik’s attention would be diverted as he drove past a small pasture framed by a fence.
“I’d see this horse,” Wernik related. “He was the only horse there. I guess the fact that he was alone pulled me in a little bit, because I’d been going through some things in my life. One day, I decided I was going to take him an apple. Then I began taking him apples every night after work, and he’d wait for me by the side of the fence. He knew the pattern.
“That’s how the bond formed.”
The bond continued to develop for more than a year. Then, one day, Joey was gone.
“There I was, with my apple,” Wernik remembered. “It was dark, so I’m using the flashlight on my phone, looking for him, but he wasn’t there.”
By then, Wernik knew the horse’s name. It was provided by a neighborhood dog groomer whose clients included both Wernik and Joey’s owners, the next day, when Wernik knocked on the door of a residence whose property included the pasture, the NJDOC sergeant knew exactly how to phrase his question.
“When the guy answered the door, I asked him what happened to Joey,” he said. “He wanted to know how I knew Joey, so I filled him in. He told me he realized something was going on, because of the way Joey stood by the fence every night.”
Wernik learned that Joey’s owners no longer could afford to take care of him, so the horse was returned to his previous owner. Without hesitation, Wernik located that owner and, for a $500 fee, adopted Joey.
He was undaunted by the fact that, at the time, he knew nothing about caring for a horse.
“I honestly didn’t know what I was getting into,” he admitted.
What he did know, however, was that the bond he and Joey had forged might be broken was unbreakable.
Perhaps Kevin Wernik’s dad put it best. Robert Wernik, a longtime officer at both Bayside and Southern State who is now retired, told his son, “You thought Joey needed you, but you needed Joey.”
Due to costs, Joey has been stabled in several barns in the six-plus years that Wernik has been his owner. Along the way Wernik pointed out, he “learned the ropes” about taking care of a horse.
“I never really thought about owning a horse, so I was introduced to an aspect of life that I never would have known without Joey,” he said, adding that he never did learn how to ride his companion.
“I wouldn’t even know how to put a saddle on him,” Wernik confessed, chuckling.
One of his first lessons as a horse owner was that horses produce manure at an astounding rate. In retrospect, that simple realization changed Wernik’s life.
“The first barn Joey and I were at, there was manure everywhere,” he explained. “One of my all-time favorite movies is ‘Forrest Gump.’ So one day I jokingly asked someone at the barn what Forrest Gump would do with all that manure? He looked at me with a totally straight face and said, ‘sell it.’ He told me people would use it for their gardens, that kind of thing.”
The suggestion prompted Wernik to summon his inner Forrest Gump.
He located a wooden pallet, painted it, stacked bags of manure on it, added a small money box and placed it along the road by the farm. The bags were on sale for $2 apiece.
From the outset, business was brisk.
“It’s the honor system,” said Wernik, who has sold nearly 5,000 bags since launching the endeavor in 2012.
“I’d say at least 90 percent of the time, the money in the box is completely accurate, which is amazing.”
After just a few months, Wernik checked his earnings, which were stored in an empty water jug, and found that he’d sold more than $470 worth of manure.
Following his father’s recommendation, he donated the money to a variety of charities, among them Special Olympics and Autism Speaks.
Each time the water jug would fill with proceeds, the process would repeat itself, and a new set of charities would be selected. In all, Wernik stated, more than 40 charities received donations that generally ranged from $50 to $100.
The process dramatically changed after a phone call during which Wernik was trying to negotiate a deal to buy custom-made Joey dolls. Due to higherthan- anticipated costs, no deal was made, but during the conversation, Wernik was told about an affordable alternative: the purchase of teddy bears.
Utilizing funds from manure sales, Wernik began ordering stuffed bears and sending them to area hospitals, where they were distributed to children. “Then a coworker suggested that we should call around to see if we could go to a hospital and deliver the bears ourselves,” Wernik said.
So it came to be that each December, Wernik and a handful of others from the NJDOC give out teddy bears in Philadelphia’s St. Christopher Hospital for Children.
“We bring 175 bears,” he said, “and that covers every child in the hospital.
“The project has come to be known as the Big Bear Hug, because when you give a child a bear, the first thing he or she does is hug it.
“The reaction of the kids just grabs a hold of you,” Wernik added. “It’s so moving to see how much that bear means. We go to the hospital with these big, strong guys, and it gets them. It just gets them.”
In 2017, Wernik and company also brought meals to the Ronald McDonald House. The outing was so well received that plans are in place to make it an annual event.
“Sometimes you think, ‘How are we going to do this?’ but somehow it comes together,” he said. “With the Ronald McDonald House, for example, we were bringing all this food, and there were so many details to iron out. Yet, it turned out incredibly well. Afterwards, we looked at each other, and we were practically speechless. Then, right after we left, it started pouring, and when the rain stopped, there was this huge rainbow. It was one of those priceless moments.”
It was just one of many priceless moments that never would have come about if the corrections professional hadn’t fed an apple to a horse.
“I see Joey every day, sometimes more than once,” said Wernik, leaning on a fence at the Sea Horse Farm in Cape May, Joey’s current home. “Joey has changed my life. Before, I’d go to work, go home, grab a meal, whatever. Now, I have a sense of purpose.”
Surprisingly, none of the money raised from the sale of manure or any other charity endeavors goes toward Joey’s upkeep. Wernik pays those expenses himself.
“I’m proud of that,” he declared. “From the beginning, I wanted every dollar to be used for something positive. I felt that if I took any of it for expenses, I’d ruin the whole thing.
“And I still feel that way.”
Matt Schuman is a former newspaper reporter and editor who serves as the Public Information Office for the NJ Department of Corrections. He has been with NJDOC since 2000.
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