Justine Hamm, 25, lost all of her belongings to Hurricane Sandy, yet Peter and Shirley Levitan, a couple in Margate, were first on her list of worries.
"It was very relieving to know they were OK," said Hamm, a resident of Tuckerton. "I really care about them. …It's just in my nature to care about people. I can't help it."
Hamm is neither a family member nor a longtime friend of the beach town residents, but serves as one, working for Comfort Keepers, an in-home senior care agency that opened its Galloway Township office this past August. Hamm has worked as a caregiver since its inception and spends four hours with the Margate couple Monday through Friday.
The local business, run by Barnegat Township resident Kelly Marrero and her husband, Lou, opened its doors after a huge outpouring of requests came in from Cape May into Atlantic County, said the owner. The company itself has been working to help the aging community nationwide since 1987.
"Seniors need companionship, they need friendship, they need love, they need family, they need somebody to put their needs above their own," Marrero said. "We are the first people that are there."
Marrero and her group of about 32 caregivers made sure the Levitans, and all of their South Jersey clients, were well prepared for the storm. Calls were made, supplies were bought and evacuation plans were arranged.
However, the Levitans chose to stay in their unit on the 15th floor of Margate's Ninety Six Hundred Condominiums, which overlooks the ocean. They were among the people in 15 units who decided to stay, out of 246, confirmed Shirley, 86.
Her husband, Peter, 82, had been using a wheelchair since undergoing back surgery in April. The two evacuated last year before Hurricane Irene and knew they weren't going to put themselves through it again.
"It took us three and a half hours to get to Mt. Laurel," Peter said.
Shirley, a native of Atlantic City and Peter, originally of Philadelphia, have lived in the Margate condos full time since 1987. The couple has two children, Dan, 57 and Jeanie, 54, who live in California and Vermont, respectively.
The Levitans reached out to Comfort Keepers after their first South Jersey in-home care company left them unsatisfied.
"Comfort Keepers has been much more …" Shirley began. "Attentive," Peter finished. "More dedicated," Shirley said.
Dedicated was exactly the word.
"We were out there when we weren't supposed to be," Marrero said of her workers. "When there were curfews, we were there up until the wire."
Once Hamm learned of the mandatory evacuation for Margate, she knew she had to reach out to Comfort Keepers.
"I called them because the police where I live wouldn't let me go because there was nowhere for me to go, because there was water everywhere," she said.
Marrero felt inclined to reach out to the Margate police to send someone to the condominiums. It had been two days and Comfort Keepers could not get in touch with the Levitans.
Shirley could recall the storm of 1944, when she was a teenager living on Winchester Avenue in Atlantic City and also living through several storms to follow.
"It was no comparison," she said of Hurricane Sandy. This time, the couple was without power for 36 hours, the longest they'd ever experienced.
Firefighters walked 15 flights of stairs to find the couple safe, just a little tired and in need of a shower.
As soon as the bridge lifted for the first responders, Hamm was there with her badge. Marrero explained that Hamm waited for three hours and walked the stairs to check in on her clients.
"You get attached to these elderly people like they're your own family, and you take responsibility for them and sometimes with no one else, you feel responsible to make sure that they are all in one piece," Marrero said. "You hate to see anyone in trouble, and when you take on a client for us, it's like taking on a family member. …You become a part of our family."
Contact Caitlin Honan: