The Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Long Beach has always helped children with schoolwork, and offered games and other activities, and even camping experiences. Seniors, too, get help with food. Now the center offers something else: help with paying bills, thanks to an unlikely donor, the owner of an auto body shop in Island Park.
In September, Gia Puma, of Puma’s Auto Body, was asked by one of her longtime customers for a donation to the MLK Center to help families with their bills. But she didn’t want to make a cash donation, because she wanted to see for herself where the money would be going.
She connected with the center last month.
Puma, 57, ran the body shop with her late husband, Tony, before he passed away from cancer in 2014. Puma, who now has property in Long Beach and Oceanside, had never met any of the center’s board members or employees. But she struck up an acquaintance with its chairman, Cedrick Coad, and its executive director, Melissa Spleen.
Puma is planning to join the center’s board, and said she wanted to help the organization in any way she could.
“She started helping with one bill per family,” Spleen said. “She started with the families of kids that the MLK center serves.”
Puma has helped more than twenty North Park families since Sept. 26, when she paid her first bill for one of them. They have been emailing her and the center about their needs — help with car insurance or energy bills. There is no limit on what she will help pay.
“I haven’t put a limit on it,” Puma said. “I have paid some bills for $1,400 and I have paid some bills for $70. Whatever they submit to me is what I have helped pay.”
So far, according to the MLK center, Puma has paid $11,098 in car insurance, PSE&G and National Grid bills for a number of families, and she’s still going.
Obviously, paying other people’s bills can’t go on forever, but Puma has helped the community in other ways, and plans to do more in the future. She has collected the wish lists of 55 North Park children and will buy gifts for each of them. She has also purchased, and will give out, 10 new coats for participants in the center’s seniors program.
“My next step is to help people help themselves,” she said.
Puma wants to meet the children of the families she has helped, and wants them to “understand that they are worthy and they don’t have to continue this pattern of difficulty in their lives.” She wants to speak with them about opportunities they have in the world, and tell them that “they are entitled to it just as much as anybody else.”