Brigantine resident Frank Lepore II always planned to make a profession out of helping people. By May 2010, he landed a position with the Mental Health Association of Atlantic County. More than two years later, he was providing counseling to people he called neighbors.
For Lepore, 30, and many other residents living in shore towns, the days leading up to Hurricane Sandy were not used to prepare for one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit the area.
"It came out of left field," he said of the storm's actual devastation.
The Saturday before the storm, Lepore recalled packing a light bag, planning to be off the island for just a few days following the call for a mandatory evacuation. "Going a week without getting back onto the island was not what we had planned, but it wasn't what anyone had planned," he said. "By the time I got back to (my) place, my worst nightmare had come true."
Lepore, originally of Mount Laurel, Burlington County, had spent every summer of his childhood in Brigantine. After graduating with a degree in psychology from Richard Stockton College in 2010 and securing a job with the MHAAC, moving to the island permanently seemed like the most natural fit.
His floor of the duplex he rented belonged to his father and sat high on the street. Water damage was the last thing he was worried about, but a call from his neighbor upstairs confirmed the bad news.
Although he considered himself lucky, Lepore still had a crawl space full of water and inches of water damage in his apartment, along with lost furniture and belongings.
He received FEMA assistance quickly, but as the possibility of mold became a precarious detail and reconstruction began, Lepore found himself displaced.
"It just became dangerous to live there," he said. "It was easier for me to pick up and leave."
Fortunately, Lepore had the option of staying at his fiancee's house in Mount Laurel, but the MHAAC offices were an hour away in Galloway Township. Flexible scheduling and the occasional night on a co-worker's couch made getting back to his life possible.
Before the upset of the hurricane, Lepore had been working as the program manager for MHACC's Individuals Concerted in Effort (ICE) Wellness program as well as working part-time for another program, Peer Outreach Support Team (POST).
Post storm, the MHA in New Jersey partnered with FEMA to provide New Jersey Hope and Healing, a program organized to manage the emotional consequences of storms and flooding. Lepore joined the team, offering counseling and walking door-to-door as part of the outreach initiative.
"He hit the streets of Brigantine several times a week offering emotional support and promoting resilience, empowerment, and recovery," said Jaime Angelini, the area's NJ Hope and Healing team leader.
Angelini also has worked for the Mental Health Association in Atlantic County as director of consumer services and was responsible for hiring Lepore in 2010.
"Frank is able to not only empathize, but, in fact, shares similar reactions and emotion with fellow Sandy survivors," she said.
Two weeks ago, Lepore walked the beaches of his favorite shore spot for the first time since the storm.
"It was kind of an awe that came over me," he said, realizing the work that still needed to be done. "It was not the beach that I had known. It was definitely not the Brigantine beach that I knew growing up."
Witnessing gutted houses and livelihoods in piles on the sides of streets put into perspective the importance of his work.
"These kinds of situations bring into the light the true nature of who we are as human beings," he said.
Besides offering access to helpful resources, Lepore said, even more importantly, he provided an outlet for people to talk.
"Some people are just looking to tell their story," he said. "Some people just want someone to listen to them."
Lepore stressed the substantial steps that the surrounding area and its resident have made, but how the counseling he provides still has a stigma attached.
"People see reaching out for counseling as a weakness," he said. "Being able to reach out is a sign of pure strength," he said. "No one should have to carry the burden alone."
Lepore has ended his time with NJ Help and Healing, although the program remains available. Now, he focuses on his day job, pursuing his masters degree in rehabilitation counseling from the University of Medicine and Dentistry and planning a wedding.
"I have to move on, and that's kind of what we want to get across to the people we counsel," he said. "We want them to move forward and strive to move forward."
To seek assistance from New Jersey Hope and Healing, call its toll free helpline 877-294-HELP (4357).
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