Driving through the Borough of Point Pleasant Beach, it’s a bit harder to see the damage that was left behind after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Jersey shore last fall. There are no houses floating in the bay, or sitting in the middle of the street, as there are in Mantoloking and Ortley Beach, towns located just south of here, down Route 35. The houses in Point Pleasant Beach still sit on their foundations. The local boardwalk, Jenkinson’s, doesn’t have an iconic roller coaster sitting in the ocean like nearby Seaside Heights does. Things seem normal now.
But make no mistake: The borough is still very much recovering from the storm. As Casey Noll, a volunteer with the nonprofit rebuilding group Shore 2 Recover, said, it’s still a “war zone.” Though the TV cameras have faded away and the initial wave of volunteers has subsided, the residents of Point Pleasant Beach still struggle every day—both physically and emotionally—to deal with the devastation. “We have to remember that just because it’s not on TV and it’s not being aired anymore doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” says sophomore English and publishing major Mackenzie Hickey. “These are real people—with real lives and families—and these are their homes.”
And while many people passed through the small beach town on the morning of Saturday, April 13, without pausing long enough to observe this, the reality of the situation was clearly understood by Hickey and the group of TCNJ students who, after taking an hour-long bus ride from campus, were there to lend a helping hand—no matter how large or small the task. “I didn’t have to come here,” said sophomore marketing major Leigh Cesanel. “I wanted to come and help out because I hadn’t had a chance to [contribute to] the relief effort down here yet. Even if it just means mopping the floor to help someone rebuild their house, I just want to do what I can to help out.”
Every weekend during the past semester, busloads of TCNJ students traveled to New Jersey towns affected by Hurricane Sandy, playing an important role in helping the Garden State rebuild and recover after the devastating superstorm. In addition to that day’s trips to Point Pleasant, Bay Head, and Toms River, TCNJ volunteers did recovery work in Keansburg, Port Monmouth, Sea Bright, Sea Girt, Seaside Heights, Toms River, and Union Beach this spring. The trips were the culmination of the hard work and creativity that were set in motion almost immediately after Sandy hit in October, when a collective thought saturated the minds of the College community: “What can be done to help the relief effort?” That consideration initiated the commencement of a campuswide initiative known as Here for Home, through which students, faculty, and staff have extended a helping hand to New Jersey residents desperately in need of one.
Here for Home has encompassed a number of efforts since its inception, from food and clothing drives to fundraisers. The weekly bus trips were conceived as a way to give the campus community the opportunity to get involved in “direct service,” explained Tim Asher, TCNJ’s director of student activities. The College coordinated with outside service organizations that were already involved in recovery efforts, giving TCNJ volunteers access to work sites where they could make an impact. That is what brought Here for Home and Shore 2 Recover together on that Saturday in April. During the course of their work, the students had the opportunity to talk with Point Pleasant Beach residents Debbie Harris, Virginia Cronin, and Kitty Stillufsen, all of who were affected by the storm.
From the outside, Debbie Harris’s home looks like it shook off the storm. But open the front door, step inside, and you’ll quickly realize this is far from the truth. Insulation and sheet rock rest on the floor, waiting to become the meat and skin that will salvage what is now just a skeleton of the Harris’ living room. It was this task that TCNJ’s volunteers were working on that day—putting back together the home in which Harris has lived her entire life, a place she didn’t leave even when the borough was evacuated during Hurricane Sandy. Freshman health and exercise science major Emma Culleton, a midfielder on the Lions’ women’s soccer team, said she had never worked with sheetrock before. But that day, Culleton gradually morphed into an expert nail gunner, drilling hole after hole like it was second nature, while her teammate, freshman mechanical engineering major Justine Larocca, and assistant coach Kelly Bushe provided assistance. All so that Harris could be that much closer to returning to normalcy.
Meanwhile, four blocks over, members of the College’s wrestling team donned hazmat-like suits so that they could enter the crawl space of Virginia Cronin’s home and install insulation. After being evacuated during the storm, Cronin, a French and English teacher at the town’s high school, returned to discover that her house had taken on 25 inches of water. She couldn’t believe what she saw. “It was absolutely devastating, and the house was uninhabitable, so, for the next week, friends and students came over,” Cronin said. “Anything we could salvage, we [did].” But a lot of things didn’t make it through the storm, including bins of photos that Cronin had hoped to put into albums and give to her three children. Cronin said she had to rely on borrowed furniture, a dorm room fridge, and microwave for some time. That reality made Cronin, a widow who lost her husband, Tim, to brain cancer 11 years ago, question whether life would ever return to what it had been before Sandy. But then she connected with Shore 2 Recover and welcomed TCNJ students into her home—so “amazing people could do awesome things.
“It’s kind of scary; it’s daunting,”Cronin said. “Sometimes I wonder if I’ll get it all done, what will it look like, and things of that nature. Shore 2 Recover and TCNJ coming down to do these things is a big help though, because there’s a big gap between what the insurance covered and what was needed.”
Those same problems also exist for Kitty Stillufsen, a single mother who is dealing with damage to her home as well as her family’s restaurant. Stillufsen, whose home is a fishing cast away from the Manasquan River, has had to turn her garage into a storage unit to house what was left after the storm passed through. She is just now beginning the process of moving everything back inside. Although the major improvements to her home have been dealt with by professional contractors, there are still little things that she needs assistance with.
“I think it means a lot for the people we come to see,” said senior deaf education major Michele Vroegindewey, while spray-painting a fireplace grate for Stillufsen. “You can just see their faces light up.” Junior Spanish major Carmella Holl, who also found herself at Stillufsen’s home that Saturday, agreed. “I think when you see the reaction of the people you’re helping, it really hits you,” Holl said. “Even if we are only dusting the windows, we are helping [Kitty] on her road to recovery, and while it is a huge project for her to take on and fix alone, it’s nice to be able to help her through that process. That makes it worth it.”
Assistant Provost Patrick Donohue said sentiments such as Holl’s were a common refrain from those who volunteered with Here for Home this past semester. “It speaks to the type of students we have here at TCNJ, and how they embrace the emphasis that the College places on community service and class-based community engaged learning projects as an integral part of the overall educational experience,” said Donohue, who oversees the College’s Community Engaged Learning (CEL) programs and partnerships. Through the CEL Program, all first-year students take part in hands-on, service-oriented projects that address issues facing the local and regional community, such as hunger, homelessness, educational reform, and environmental awareness. CEL II classes allow upper-level students to continue to have a positive impact on the community. All of the activities are directly tied to TCNJ’s mission to be “a national exemplar in the education of those who seek to sustain and advance the communities in which they live.”
Asher isn’t surprised to hear comments such as Holl’s either. It’s that type of feedback that motivates him to do as much as he can to keep sending busses of TCNJ volunteers down, week after week, to help the Debbie Harrises, Virginia Cronins, and Kitty Stillufsens of New Jersey. “The response has been phenomenal; I knew [our students] would volunteer,” he said. “I went to the [initial Here for Home] meeting because I knew students would want to volunteer, and I wanted to help create a way for them to do so. I think those are the students that we have always had here: those who want to help.”