Lee Parker needed a backpack for a job interview the next day. He had been homeless for several years and carried his few possessions in a plastic bag.
So when he and a friend came across a new backpack sitting atop a garbage can next to the Elizabeth, N.J., train station last Sunday night, it was like divine intervention. He picked it up and they walked a bit. It was only when he looked inside that he saw a maze of wires hooked up to makeshift pipe bombs.
Parker and his friend, Ivan White, took the bag to a remote area in case the explosives detonated and went straight to the police.
Since then, they have been hailed as heroes for potentially saving the lives of hundreds on a weekend that saw bombs also planted in Manhattan and Seaside Park, N.J.
One man who was particularly moved was Donald Goncalves, a 52-year-old, lifelong resident of Elizabeth.
“I care a lot about my town,” he said in an interview Friday. “I used to be a commuter to New York myself. It touched me in a very profound way. How could I take what could have been a devastating moment and turn it into something positive?”
Goncalves turned to online crowdfunding, hoping to raise just a little bit of money as a token of appreciation for the men. He set a goal of $10,000 that would be split three ways between them and the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless, a local nonprofit organization that has already found Parker an apartment, Goncalves said. White lives in subsidized housing on a fixed income.
Within days, the GoFundMe page that Goncalves set up had doubled its goal, and now has raised more than $25,000.
Goncalves, who has become the de facto spokesman for Parker and White — he has had inquiries from Hollywood for talk-show appearances and from the National Football League’s New York Jets to honor them at a game — said he is eager to get the money distributed. Some criticized his decision to give the local homeless organization a third of the money, but Goncalves felt it was important to give something to the group that will help Parker get back on his feet.
Parker didn’t make it to his job interview Monday morning — he was going to apply to load trucks — because he was still being interviewed by law enforcement. But Goncalves said a large food company based in Elizabeth has already reached out about giving Parker a job.
The men were interviewed by ABC7NY this week and downplayed their roles as heroes.
“I’m just glad I was able to realize what the situation was and react in such a way that, thank goodness, no one got hurt,” White told the TV station.
“Hero? No. I wouldn’t go that far. [I was] doing the right thing,” Parker said.
Goncalves said that when he found Parker to tell him he was raising money for him, all Parker said in response was that he was hungry and needed to get food.
“Eight thousand dollars is a lot to him, but it’s nothing for us. From our perspective, it’s chump change for what he did for us. It’s just a token for him to understand how significant his contribution was to society,” Goncalves said. “This is America, and these stories of heroism and celebrity is the type of stuff we thrive upon, but it’s so nice to see common guys like Lee and Ivan be the recipients of it.”
As for that backpack Parker wanted? He now owns two.
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