Six months into his tenure, Mathieu Nelessen – a 1999 Rutgers graduate and CEO of the American Red Cross, North Jersey – was about to have his mettle tested.
Superstorm Sandy, which had already killed dozens in the Caribbean, was bearing down on the Northeast, and forecasters predicted unprecedented coastal flooding, river and flash flooding, and tropical storm force winds or worse.
A massive “call-down” came to mobilize volunteers to brace for, respond to and recover from Sandy.
Nelessen, the youngest regional CEO in the organization, presided over the response in his territory, working with government and partner agencies to ramp up shelters and feeding sites and provide mental health counseling to thousands of displaced residents.
'At the core of my life is being attached to a mission – like watching a child with Down’s syndrome running his first race, delivering a hot meal or giving a pint of blood to save a life.' – Mathieu Nelessen
At the storm’s height, the North Jersey Red Cross operated 14 shelters, including two at Rutgers, with volunteers at kitchens and food distribution sites producing 30,000 hot meals a day.
“The Red Cross has a highly sophisticated operation,” Nelessen says. “Three days before the storm, a high-level volunteer arrived from Pennsylvania and said, ’I’m your job director.’ She worked with the senior leadership team to lead the immediate response in New Jersey on behalf of the Red Cross.”
By the time Sandy hit on October 29, nearly 2,000 trained volunteers from across the country had mobilized and were en route to New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, including 150 Emergency Response Vehicles, whose drivers had come from as far away as New Mexico, Louisiana and California.
“I have never been so challenged, so impressed and so humbled as when I got to see the staff, volunteers and humanitarians at work as the emergency unfolded,” says Nelessen, who shuttled daily between the field and the Red Cross Disaster Operations Center on Route 1 in New Brunswick.
Nelessen’s values were shaped growing up in the Rutgers community. He is the son of Anton Nelessen, an associate professor of urban design at Rutgers’ Bloustein School, and Francoise, a Waldorf teacher. He says his Belgian mother, who has volunteered in Peru, Vietnam and other countries with nonprofits and NGOs, left her impression on him and his brothers with her philanthropic spirit and global understanding.
“My parents were kind of eccentric; 30 years ago, you might have called them hippies,” Nelessen says. One of his fondest memories is driving with his family in a VW bus across the country; another is being tucked in to bed by the director of Crossroads Theatre. The Nelessen famly lived on top of the theater in an open warehouse space and at night Mathieu would be lulled to sleep by the sounds of voices coming from the actors on stage.
At Rutgers, Nelessen majored in psychology – a great platform for understanding the nuances of human behavior while in a leadership role with complex management responsibilities, he says – and after graduating went to work for a dot.com in Princeton.
One of the clients was the CEO of the Special Olympics of New Jersey, who recruited him to become the organization’s first director of education and outreach. He rose in the Special Olympics ranks, eventually taking on the role of liaison to state law enforcement and becoming a member of the leadership team. In 2008, he joined the American Diabetes Association as director of development and in two years moved into an executive director position in which he was responsible for the strategic direction of the northern New Jersey market and a $2.3 million budget.
In a career devoted to nonprofit advocacy, Nelessen admits he made one misstep – a stint with an unnamed organization in which the fundraising objectives were too far from the mission. It taught him an important lesson: He would not be happy in a behind-the-desk kind of job or working for an organization that wasn’t making a tangible impact on people’s lives.
“At the core of my life is being attached to a mission – like watching a child with Down’s syndrome running his first race, delivering a hot meal or giving a pint of blood to save a life,” Nelessen says.
With the start of the holiday season, Nelessen is winding down from consecutive 12- to 16-hour workdays. “I took my first day off on November 18,” says Nelessen, who lives with his wife, Gina Totaro (Douglass ‘04), and their 2-year-old son, William Anton, in Princeton.
To date, Nelessen’s group has delivered more than 4 million meals and snacks and 1.4 million bulk items – clean-up and comfort kits, blankets, home supplies and clothing – to those affected by Sandy.
But the work is far from over. “I foresee the Red Cross being involved in this response and subsequent recovery for months – and possibly years,” he says.
Cara Cantor is the managing editor of Rutgers Today.