Passion and drive to give back turns call for help into major fundraiser for Class of 2020

It started as a simple phone call asking for some assistance.

Washington Township (Gloucester County) superintendent Joe Bollendorf was looking for a way to raise scholarship money for six high school seniors experiencing hardship. Three had lost a parent to cancer this school year, three others have a parent currently battling the disease.

He reached out to Martino Cartier, a celebrity stylist and owner of a successful salon in town. Through his charitable foundation - Wigs & Wishes - Cartier wasted no time in setting up $1,000 scholarships for the students.

No questions asked. Done deal. Excited to help.

It turned out to be just the beginning.

What happened over the following couple of days showed the true power of community, that one person can make a difference.

And with a little help from friends, it could be unbelievable.

When Gov. Phil Murphy ordered all schools shut down on March 16 - and eventually for the remainder of the school year - due to the coronavirus outbreak, there would be no prom, no yearbook signings and ultimately no traditional graduation ceremonies.

After taking care of Bollendorf’s request, Cartier wanted to see if he could help brighten the day of Washington Township’s other seniors - approximately 550 all together. While the number was large, it became a mission.

A call to a local McDonald's set the project in motion. John Durante, the owner of several franchises, would donate meals for the kids and their families if Cartier could get other local businesses involved.

"I love a challenge and people love to give when they know where it's going," Cartier said.

Cartier made call after call, everyone he spoke to donating something to the cause. He even raised $6,400 in a matter of minutes to help put together rose bouquets for the district's 800 teachers and staff. A local photography studio added $50 gift certificates.

“It’s like a Jerry Lewis telethon,” he said on a Facebook livestream as money poured in from residents and businesses alike one afternoon last week.

Again, done.

Cartier estimates that $170,000 in various donations from cheesesteaks and water ice to swag bags, t-shirts and much more was raised for the Class of 2020 in his hometown. Better than three dozen businesses - local and elsewhere - contributed to the cause, while a host of residents lent financial support or volunteered to help in some way.

"I have people behind me that just want to help. They have no agenda and there's no red tape," Cartier said. "I have a platform that can change the lives of these kids.

"When you give, it comes back. The most successful people in life are often the most generous. These businesses that took a leap of faith in a time when they're not making the same money, they've been so generous."

What Cartier did in such a short period of time speaks volumes, not only to the respect people have for him as a community leader but what businesses and people are willing to do in a time of need.

"We're all struggling. It means a lot to see his passion to step up and make a difference," Bollendorf said. "Martino has a child who went through the school district, so he has a semblance and understanding of what senior year means to these kinds.

"It's absolutely mind-blowing. It became contagious and people desperately wanted to be a part of it. I've never seen anything like it in the time it took. When the chips are down and people are in need, this community repeatedly steps up.

"Martino has a way about him. He strikes people as being very genuine and is clearly from the heart. He's all about giving back. He's a remarkable man, no doubt. There's a good and positive spirit about him."

On Friday and Saturday between noon-3, staff members will be able to stop by Cartier’s salon to pick up the rose bouquets. High school principal Jonathan Strout is also expected to begin distributing the senior gifts to each graduate, beginning a journey that will take him to approximately 35 houses a day until every senior is visited.

"In an effort to try and boost the spirits of our seniors during this difficult time, I decided that I wanted to visit the house of every senior to take them a small gift from the school," Strout said. "What I didn't expect was to be able to deliver the incredibly cool gifts our community has provided. While we realize these gifts will never be able to replace what our seniors have lost, we hope that it will provide some joy in their lives during this time of intense sadness."

Cartier is no stranger to fundraisers and finding ways to give back to the community. As a young salon owner in Pitman, he held a fundraiser for a child dying from cancer. Cartier raised $22,000 so the mother could stay home with her son. He was ultimately able to raise enough money to cover her mortgage for two years.

"At that moment I realized my purpose," Cartier said.

"If I didn't go through such a hard time as a child, I wouldn't have the passion I have for kids today."

A 1994 Glassboro graduate, Cartier has already put things in motion to help his alma mater in the same way he’s helped Washington Township. Williamstown and the Gloucester County Institute of Technology are also on the agenda.

One man with the energy and passion to help others is all it took to get something unforgettable started.

"With all of the volunteers and donors ... None of this would be possible without people who have heart and passion; people who care," Cartier said. "It's almost selfish, but this really makes me feel good.

“The day will come when they will walk. We don’t know when, but they will have that graduation. In the mean time, I hope this makes them happy and takes their minds off the calamity of it all, that we did the right thing.”