Jay Copp 2013-10-08 09:37:13
Lions are helping New Jerseyites and others recover from the epic storm that hit a year ago. Standing outside his damaged home, Dave Fesette holds his smartphone out in front of him and smiles wryly. The photo of the home in New Jersey featured in the online newspaper story looks eerily similar to his home. It is his home. His residence is “the poster child,” he says, of the devastation of Superstorm Sandy. A year ago the storm ravaged his two-story residence in Port Monmouth. The first floor filled with water, and the powerful winds tore off the roof, ruining the second floor as well. The newspaper story relates that the deadline for state grants available for homeowners impacted by the storm expires soon. Yet Donna and Dave Fesette have been unable to secure a grant. It’s confusing and maddening. They once were told the damage did not meet the minimum requirement, obviously not true. Then their paperwork was lost, says Dave. The Fesettes have 3-year old twins and an 8-year-old. Since Sandy, their lives have been turned upside down. They’ve lived nearby in a cramped apartment not designed for a family. Their steely resolve to do what it takes to regain their home has been severely tested. “This is a never-ending story. It’s even more heartbreaking now,” says Donna, who leans into their van parked in front of the house to check on the twins. “We were clueless early on. OK, we thought, we’ll get through this. We’re up against the state, the mortgage company. Now that we have Bill, he’s given us hope. He’s our miracle.” Adds Dave, who works in the events industry, “We’re losing faith and hope. Bill has restored our faith in humanity.” “Bill” is Bill Bechtoldt, who is here today to check on the Fesettes. Bechtoldt, relaxed and self-possessed, wears a bright yellow Lions shirt. Since Sandy, he’s logged two to four hours a day helping repair nearly 400 homes along and near the Jersey shore. Most have been fixed up by teenagers from across the country for the Jersey Shore Workcamp, a longstanding church-based volunteer group run by Bechtoldt. But many have been repaired by Lions from New Jersey or Lions who drove in on weekends from Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Lions clubs and districts also donated money for the repairs. Today two skilled volunteer laborers, here because of Bechtoldt’s connections, are working beneath the home, now elevated as a precondition of receiving federal relief. Bechtoldt, who talks often to the Fesettes and knows the details of their travails, hugs them before he leaves. “I want to get you back in here by October 1,” he promises. *** The beaches, bars and amusement parks along the Jersey shore reopened this past summer. But the neighborhoods remain an unsettling mishmash of abandoned or boardedup homes, half-repaired houses and restored homes. Dumpsters, barricades and yellow cautionary tape pockmark street after street, frequented by dusty pickup trucks and construction workers. Recovery is a work in progress. Sandy killed at least 125 people in the United States and caused more than $62 billion in damages. State and federal governments are scrambling to meet needs and restore a sense of normalcy. Lions have helped fill in some gaps, got people back on their feet and, most of all, lent a personal touch, a measure of decency and kindness in the wake of a devastating calamity. The LION accompanied Bechtoldt for a day as he visited homeowners he and other Lions have helped. The Jersey shore suffered a terrible blow, but it’s picked itself off the canvas and, though wobbly and still weakened, stands again. Bechtoldt smiles when told no sign signals the Jersey Shore Workcamp. The camp is run from his floral shop on a main street in Middletown, five miles from the sea and thus mostly spared from the wrath of Sandy. His business lost power for two weeks, terrible for business but fortuitous for distressed homeowners. “Gail [his wife] and I took a ride to check on the people we’ve helped in the past,” he says. A seaside town, nearby Keansburg took a direct hit. The surging waters breached the sand berm and walloped 10 blocks before meekly stopping at St. Anne Church. The amusement park on the bay was no match for Sandy. A solitary bumper car was found in the middle of a street blocks away. For months the massive parking lot adjacent to the amusement park was a crazed, surreal collection of ruined parts of homes. There was nowhere else to put debris. Prior to Sandy, Bechtoldt had supervised dozens of repair jobs in Keansburg, occupied by many lowincome, single-parent households. That includes Patti Faldetti, who works for the school district. She’s at work but Bechtoldt now knows her well enough that he’s comfortable entering the home when no one answers his knocks. His crew gutted her entire first floor, now gleamingly new. “The water was up to here,” says Bechtoldt, putting his hand at his throat. Disasters are no picnic, but the unexpected troubles that erupt in their aftermath often retraumatize people. Faldetti was told by her insurance company to not move a thing until it could get an examiner out. That took three weeks. “It was like living in sewage,” she says by phone from her workplace. There was no heat, and her pipes froze and burst. She came down with pneumonia and an infection. Her cat developed tumors. She also learned that FEMA required her to raise her home if she wanted federal aid. “It will look ridiculous. I’ll be living in a tree house,” says Faldetti, chagrined but fortified with a survivor’s humor. “I guess I’ll have a good view. I’ll be in the penthouse.” Bechtoldt wrangled with the insurance company and government officials for her. “Thank God for Bill. He’s my Clarence–from ‘It’s A Wonderful Life,’” she says. Next stop is the beautifully restored home of Ann Campbell, a demure 77-year-old woman. She’s been in her cinder block home in Keansburg since 1967 and lived alone since 1988, when her mother died. Before she retired from a job as a home health aide, she worked as a secretary at a busy insurance firm in New York City. The work was intense, but she handled it. “My replacement had a nervous breakdown after a few weeks,” she says matter-of-factly. On the wall is a plaque with a Bible verse from the book of Job, the blameless man who suffered terribly. “The rod of God is not on them,” the verse reads. The plaque is signed by the teenagers who worked on her home. “They said they’d write to me. I hope they do,” she says quietly Jim Groff of the Christiana Lions Club in Pennsylvania also worked on her home. Groff is a story by himself–have hammer, will travel. After Sandy, weekend after weekend, Groff and other Lions bid adieu to their jobs, families and hobbies and drove hundreds of miles armed with tools and the skills to repair homes. Groff, the owner of a restoration company, rebuilt a day care center in New York with Lions from New York. He toiled with Amish craftsmen on homes in Union Beach and Sea Bright in New Jersey. He helped fix up Campbell’s home, too. Today, for the first time, Campbell is seeing her new kitchen counter top in her brand-new kitchen. “Oh, my God,” she murmurs. For months Campbell has stayed with a kind friend. But the day is coming when she can move back. “This is my home,” she says simply. Bechtoldt, a Middletown Township Lion, drives with a fixed gaze on the road. An occupational hazard of postdisaster home repair are flat tires. He’s had six of them. “Debris was piled in the street. You couldn’t put it on the sidewalk,” he explains. A U.S. flag covers the door of the white-framed home where Bechtoldt parks. “Hi, it’s Bill,” he says, poking his head in the door and hugging Ronnie McCann, who wears a baseball cap. The interior is dark–but repaired. McCann got new subfloors, walls and electrical wiring. She almost lost her sister, who uses a wheelchair. As the water rushed in at night, McCann was able to get her sister on a platform on the stairs. The water rose to her sister’s neck, and she came down with pneumonia. McCann can now worry about more mundane matters. She shows Bechtoldt the cluttered bathroom. “I really need a medicine cabinet. There’s no place to put my stuff,” she tells him. “Give me a couple of days,” he assures her as he exits. Disasters are particularly hurtful to those with little means, those whose network of friends don’t extend into lawyers’ and government offices, those who sometimes don’t expect a fair shake from society. “I do a lot of comforting of people. I talk to insurance companies for them,” says Bechtoldt as he drives. “Some people at or below the poverty level don’t have the know-how to deal with these things.” Bechtoldt passes a long white van with a Lions logo that is stopped at a home. It’s headed to Camp Happiness, a haven for the blind. Life goes on after disasters–for good and bad. Bechtoldt tells the sad story of the next home on the itinerary. The husband, a contractor, got sick not long after Sandy and died. That left Bobbi Lariviere alone in a severely damaged home where their three children, now grown, once romped. “I’ve got all kinds of memories here,” says Lariviere. It’s not easy to pick up the pieces. “I try–with Bill’s help,” she says. The surge turned her home into a churning washing machine with her furniture as the load. “The dining room was floating. The living room was floating,” says Lariviere, who fled upstairs as her mind raced on what to do if the water followed her. The devastation, especially after her husband died, left her feeling powerless. “The first time I met her she started crying. She wouldn’t get out of the chair,” says Bechtoldt. Lions and others put in new walls, windows and a kitchen. “It’s 90 percent better. Everything is much better in some ways. It’s prettier,” she says. She and Bechtoldt trade small talk before he heads toward the back door, where he pauses. “I’ll see you on Saturday. We’ll get working on the back room,” he says as Lariviere nods. In his car Bechtoldt keeps a notebook of names and needs. At the floral shop he has a stack of business cards of contractors, government officials and Lions. He knows better than anyone that his contribution is representative of the volunteerism and cash donations of many others. A turning point for him was when the Chester Lions donated $25,000 for the repair projects, followed by $14,000 from the district governors in New Jersey. When funds or labor was needed, money or people materialized. Bechtoldt hurries behind the counter of his floral shop. He’s ready to allot the rest of his time today to his flowers and the beauty and comfort they provide to customers, an apt encore to the first portion of this Lion’s day. A Club Worthy of Its Name Thomas Edison lit the world with the light bulb. But the eponymous town in New Jersey where his lab was located went dark–and cell phones failed–after Sandy. Those technological setbacks did not deter the inventive Edison Visionary Lions Club. Chartered four years ago, the 38-member club was prepared for an emergency. It had followed the advice of LCI’s ALERT program in having ready an action plan. Five members also were graduates of FEMA’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program. After Sandy hit, the club took seriously its role as responders. Members gathered nightly for more than a week at a command center–the home of Sabita Shah, the only member with a functional cell phone. A family friendly club with married couples who involve their children in service, Edison Lions helped run a shelter. They drove a caravan of cars and vans to distribute blankets to residents without heat. Because Sandy damaged the water plant, they worked with FEMA to distribute an astonishing 28,000 cases of water bottles at a nifty drive-through operation at a school. In the middle of it all was indefatigable Mahesh Chitnis, charter president. A management consultant, Chitnis knows local mayors and other elected officials, and he called them to relay concerns of residents. He even successfully contacted State Senator Barbara Buono, running for governor, about placing police barricades in a storm-compromised neighborhood plagued by theft. Service is part of his identity, says Chitnis, who was a Leo growing up in India. “It’s in my blood. It’s who I am. Lions have been a part of not only me but my family for a long time. Most of my social life is Lions. My friends are Lions,” says Chitnis, vice district governor. The next step for Lions is joining other nonprofits and government officials in long-term recovery and also planning for the next disaster. Lions are part of a county-wide recovery effort, and Chitnis wants to publish a handbook on what to do and who to contact after a large scale crisis. A lesson he learned was that in times of crisis people under stress often overlook the most fundamental needs. At a shelter he once chatted with an elderly woman who rambled on for 20 minutes about her predicament. “Do you need anything else?” Chitnis asked as she finished her story. She reflected for a moment and then excitedly told him, “Oh, yes, I need to charge my oxygen machine.” Lions Aid Victims Superstorm Sandy whipped Lions nationwide into a frenzy of relief and aid. Lions in New York and New Jersey provided food, water and blankets. When the weather turned sharply colder, they supplied generators for those without heat as well as hats and gloves. Lions in North Carolina used the boat of the district governor to ship food and water to residents stranded on Hatteras Island. Lions in Connecticut delivered several truckloads of food to pantries. Clubs nationwide held fundraisers for Sandy relief. Repaying New York Lions in kind for their assistance after a hurricane, Lions in Florida held a quilt drive. The support continued through the summer. Camp Marcella, a camp for blind children in New Jersey, held two sessions in July for children of victims of the storm. The camp was made possible by an LCIF grant, as were many of the relief efforts. LCIF mobilized $740,000 to help those affected by Sandy including a $100,000 Major Catastrophe grant. Community Spirit Buoys a Town Sayreville is not on the Jersey shore, but the wide Raritan River rolls through it on its way to the sea. The ferocious, double digit tidal surge produced by Sandy swept over entire neighborhoods. The tight-knit town of 42,000 was changed forever. FEMA has bought out 129 homeowners, and dozens more are expected. The scale of the destruction thrust Sayreville into the headlines. Governor Chris Christie visited, as did rocker Bon Jovi, a native. On a drive through Sayreville, Kevin Kosobucki and his fiancé, Dawn Myatt, offer a detailed narrative of the fates of homeowners. This family will never return. These folks are moving out after their son graduates high school this year. This couple lost two cars. This family’s repairs are almost finished. On some blocks the couple knows two or three family tales. Their familiarity is a product of being longtime residents–and through their service as Lions, especially after Sandy. The Lions’ couple keeps a Lions’ vision and hearing van in their driveway, and after the storm they loaded up its interior with donated food and cruised the streets. They knocked on doors to let people without power and spoiled food avail themselves of a free meal or two. “We broke the rules,” says Kosobucki with a grin, referring to the Lions’ ban on food inside the van. The mobile food operation complemented the emergency food pantry at a church, staffed by Lions and others. For 10 days after Sandy the van’s generator also came in handy. The couple posted a sign on their lawn that read “Lions Charging Station.” Hundreds came to re-activate their phones and laptops. Lions built a fire pit and erected a tent to deal with the elements. Before long, residents, out of sorts with their usual routines disrupted and their normal gathering places shut down, arrived for the company as well as the service. Teenagers particularly showed up in bunches. “I got a big hug from one lady. She said, ‘Thank you for looking after my son,’” says Myatt, president of the Sayreville Lions. Two months later, she came home to find at the door a lovely Christmas card, simply addressed “to the charging station family.” But not all is well a year later. Kosobucki and Myatt visit with Paul and Doris Emmons, in their early 80s. They’ve lived in their home for 55 years, and FEMA has offered them a buyout, probably their best option. “It’s terrible,” says Doris. “I lay awake at night thinking about it. Where will we go? It’s extremely emotional considering our age.” Age and longevity–those are facts of life that can’t be dismissed. As she talks, Doris sits in a chair more than a century old–her grandmother’s. Unfortunately, many of their other belongings were lost to the flood waters. But buried in debris outside, Paul miraculously found a Christmas ornament given to them by Doris’ mother when they were married 59 years ago. Outside the Emmons’ home, Kosobucki, the club’s second vice president, knows Lions can only do so much, but they do what they can. “We help them get through this. Talking to them lets them know people care,” he says. The Lions’ couple drive through another hard-hit neighborhood. They know what happened to who here, too. They know the story of Sayreville, the story of their neighbors and friends. The two Lions have a sense of living through historic times. The hardships people endure trouble them, but they are proud of having risen to the occasion as Lions. Recalling the days and nights of the crowds at her home, Myatt says, “I enjoyed it. I enjoy helping others.”
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
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