BRICK – Frank Hagen watched as about a dozen volunteers installed sheetrock in his Cherry Quay home, some three years after it was nearly destroyed by Superstorm Sandy.
Hagen, 54, and his wife, Theresa, were home during the storm when their house filled with four feet of water, while three houses behind theirs burned during a transformer fire.
“We lost everything. The street was full of furniture,” he recalled.
But almost three years later, the Hagens are among those helped by the United Way of Ocean County’s mostly young volunteers who are aiding in Sandy rebuilding efforts through AmeriCorps here in Brick and elsewhere locally.
A small ceremony was held recently on Hagen’s front lawn to thank and recognize the volunteers, who came from all over the United States.
The volunteers were young college students completing a “Summer of Service” as part of United Way of Ocean County’s ReBuild NJ AmeriCorps Program.
The volunteers would be wrapping up 300 hours of summer service, for which they receive a small living stipend and scholarship dollars, said Linda Gyimoty, Executive Director of the United Way of Ocean County.
“FEMA said it would take up to 10 years to recover from Sandy, so we are still in the relief mode ‑‑ thousands of homes are still impacted, and many of the programs are closing down,” she said.
The Hagen family was referred to the group by the Ocean County Long-Term Recovery Group, whose Disaster Case Manager determined that they needed help with their rebuilding needs.
After the storm, the family started remediating their house right away: they took down the sheetrock and insulation in an attempt to dry the house out, but they quickly ran out of money.
“We didn’t know about the RREM Program, which we got accepted into one and a half years later; they did tons of tests for lead, asbestos and mold, and we failed. At that point the house ‑‑ built in 1961 ‑‑ was deemed a biohazard, and it was demolished,” Hagen said.
The Hagen’s home is not on the water and they were not required to carry flood insurance. They have used available funds to rebuild, including $150,000 from the RREM Program and $20,000 GFI (Gap Funding Initiative), but still had an unmet need of $105,000, he said.
The purpose of United Way of Ocean County’s ReBuild NJ AmeriCorps Program is to fill the gap for Sandy victims with donated labor and volunteers; so far the volunteers have helped to rebuild 55 Sandy-affected homes, Gyimoty said.
“First and foremost, look at who’s here ‑‑ young kids ‑‑ I’m so grateful and it makes my heart strong to know they’re helping me and the neighborhood,” said Hagen, a veteran who served in the Army from 1980-1986.
“The community is hurting. Many people in these houses are struggling ‑‑ especially the elderly. They really need to be helped. Many are living in homes that haven’t been touched … we need more, something on the government level,” he said.
Hagen said that the RREM program is excellent, but he said he is at his maximum payout.
“That’s how United Way has helped me. Without them, we would not be here,” he said. “All we want to do is get back in our homes…I’ve been through a lot of stressful things in my life, but this has been the worst.”
Volunteer Dale Abraham, 21, from Dallas, Texas, attends Austin College in Sherman, Texas. He said he applied to AmeriCorps with the idea he would get an administrative job.
“I decided I wanted to do hands-on; we’ve been in New Jersey almost two months, and I’m really impressed at how much work has gotten done,” he said.
The volunteers go from site-to-site and do whatever work is needed, such as spackling, installing sheetrock and insulation, or yard work, he said.
Jackson resident, Elizabeth Gemignani, 25, attends the nursing program at Ocean County College.
“I work (for AmeriCorps) three days a week; I love helping people. People need help, and the opportunity to see their faces makes me happy,” she said.
The ceremony was also attended by Mayor John G. Ducey; Assemblyman David Wolfe; Jeff Olsen and Bob Smyth, who are representatives from Congressman Tom MacArthur’s office; Kim McKenzie, Disaster Case Manager for United Way of Ocean County; and Robert Clark, their construction manager.
By Judy Smestad-Nunn