All they wanted was a Christmas tree.
But before Tonya and Miranda Smith could get the tree for their Ventnor home, they needed a floor to put it on.
They had lost the whole first floor of the house to Hurricane Sandy — as thousands in New Jersey and beyond did when the storm slammed the Northeast in late October.
And just as many of those hurricane victims did, Tonya and her 9-year-old daughter found that volunteers — complete strangers to them, and many even strangers to South Jersey — were willing to help them get their home, and their lives, back into livable shape.
For the Smiths, it was a group Tonya found through a local church — just a few blocks away from her in the city’s low-lying Ventnor Heights section — that sent teams of volunteers almost every weekend since the storm. She has worked side by side with at least 30 people, she said, marveling at people taking time off from their jobs to help rebuild her home.
And as they celebrate Christmas today, this little family isn’t alone in feeling especially blessed this year — even after their home was flooded less than two months ago.
These are the stories of a few more South Jersey residents who have had their Christmas spirit refreshed by how other people responded to 2012’s historic pre-Halloween hurricane.
Chrissy DeGennaro loves Ocean City, so she doesn’t want to move out — and not just because she has an 8-year-old son in third grade there.
She also likes how “Ocean City has really come together” since Sandy, she said. “It’s a great community, and we really want to stay here.”
But DeGennaro, 43, who has spent six years being treated for multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, lost the Ocean City apartment she shared with her husband and son, Nicholas and Zach. The apartment survived the storm fine, but their landlady’s son had his Ocean City summer place flooded, so she didn’t renew the DeGennaros’ lease — meaning the family had to be out by New Year’s Eve.
That news came with just seven weeks’ notice, as Chrissy — who can’t work because of her cancer treatments — was trying to help others hurt by the storm. And that cruel irony prompted her friend, Michelle Blumberg, of Ventnor, to start a campaign to find Chrissy and her family a new home in their favorite town.
Blumberg put the word out on Facebook, contacted radio and TV stations, and approached The Press of Atlantic City. She said the newspaper was the venue that helped, after a short item about DeGennaro’s plight ran in the Everyone Has a Story column.
An Ocean City homeowner read the story and contacted Blumberg to offer her friend a winter rental — a very nice home, Blumberg said, at a fair price.
The family moved into their new “vacation home,” as Chrissy calls it, about 10 days ago, with help from at least eight more friends.
So they were in with time to spare before Christmas, and Chrissy was especially touched by a little gift from her new landlords — strangers to her, who don’t usually rent in the winter.
“They went and put a Christmas wreath on the door,” she said. “They said, ‘We put that up to give you guys some spirit.’ ... That just meant a lot to me.”
Still, for as happy as they are to have a home today, they know it is just temporary. Their real goal is a year-round place — definitely in Ocean City.
“But the thing is, we’re not the only ones, because there are a lot of people affected by this storm,” Chrissy said. “It’s slim pickings right now.”
She has friends working on it, though, and she’s staying in touch with real estate agencies, checking ads in the paper and online.
“I haven’t found my happy ending yet,” she said, but added that on this holiday, at least, her family is enjoying a “happy middle.”
Home for Christmas
For years, Karen Dunn wished a casino would buy her home in Atlantic City’s Bungalow Park neighborhood. But by mid-December, Dunn wanted nothing more than to spend a night in her own bed for the first time in six weeks.
Dunn, who works with homeless women at the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, said nothing prepared her for the damage from Sandy that hit the home she shares with her two sons and her brother.
“People say things can be replaced, (but) unfortunately, I lost some things that can never be replaced. My mother is deceased. I lost some of her things. Pictures of my children, they can never be replaced,” said Dunn, 45. “I don’t think people realize how traumatic going through something like this is. ... Because the outside of our houses look well, people have no clue what the inside looks like.”
For the six weeks she was out of the house — long enough to have her Comfort Inn room number burned into her memory — family members helped with food and money. She spent Thanksgiving with nieces and nephews in Pleasantville.
But it was hardly just family who came through. She’s had help from around the world. She thanks Master’s Touch Ministry from North Carolina, which sent volunteers from Africa, Jamaica and across America. Through Shore Helpers, a website, Dunn said help came from California, Massachusetts and Maryland.
Along with those strangers, there was help from fellow members of Atlantic City’s Second Baptist Church and from Rescue Mission friends, who gave food, a refrigerator, and “some of my co-workers have given us money,” said Dunn, who added that one thing she missed in those hotel days was home-cooked meals.
But, she said, “I was invited to different people’s houses, just to sit at a table — something people take for granted.”
Now that she’s back in her home, she definitely won’t make that mistake.
Outpouring of help`
As the wife of a pastor, Eileen D’Andre spends a lot of time helping others. But after the hurricane, she and her husband, Jean, needed help themselves, badly.
They stayed with their daughter in Pennsylvania during the storm. They tried to protect their Ocean City home with sandbags, but when they got home Nov. 1, they found 13 inches of water had gotten into the 1 1/2-story house and destroyed most of what they owned.
But a lifetime of good deeds for others apparently started paying off for them as soon as they returned.
“(God) showed his power in the storm, but he also showed so much love to us,” said Eileen, 73. “The people who helped us and the love he showered on us was wonderful.”
They couldn’t stay in their home, so a friend from Linwood Community Church — where 84-year-old Jean is a visiting pastor — invited them to hers. But by Nov. 3, Eileen’s nephew and his wife, Brian and Diane Fischer, of Ocean City, gave them keys to their home. The D’Andres have been there ever since.
“I didn’t have to ask anybody to help me. The church immediately sent a lot of men to come and help us pack up things. ... Anything we could save, they saved for us,” Eileen D’Andre said.
Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian aid group from North Carolina that often works internationally, came to South Jersey and set up at Linwood Community Church. Eileen said she believes her home was the first one the group worked on, pulling out damaged floors, appliances, furniture and walls on the first floor.
Plus, Willing Hearts, a group affiliated with a Calvary Chapel in Connecticut, has volunteered to come down and rebuild the home, and even raise it.
“We have experienced so much loss, but we have experienced so much love,” said Eileen, adding that her neighbors have been great, too.
Carol DeAngelo, of Ocean City, Eileen’s longtime friend, said there’s no mystery why the D’Andres have received such an outpouring of assistance.
“If things were reversed, she would be doing things for everybody else,” DeAngelo said.
Tonya Smith found her angels on Facebook. But they came from right around the corner from her storm-damaged Ventnor home, and across the country.
When she heard about a Ventnor church group offering help, she posted a brief Facebook message: “I need help!”
She answered the request for her address, and a few days later, she was out talking to a neighbor when a “herd” of strangers came heading down their street. They were the volunteers — 10 or so on that first day alone — coming to help her out.
They were recruited and deployed by New City Fellowship Church of Atlantic City, which had just opened in 2011 in a small space above a Ventnor Heights liquor store.
The Rev. Santo Garofalo, New City’s pastor, said the church is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America, which has a disaster-response branch, Mission to North America.
“They equipped us to do what we’re doing, receiving teams from all over the country — Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York, South Carolina,” he said.
The list goes on — at least 200 people so far, with more to come this week.
The church had a structure in place to organize the volunteers, called Hope for Atlantic City, a nonprofit, community-development group also founded last year, by David Cohen, a New City member.
Cohen admits he’s “not very good at swinging a hammer, but we have a good infrastructure on the ground,” he said. “We could respond to some of the poorer neighborhoods in Atlantic City because we were already working there.”
Some volunteers have stayed for a week, some just a day. As many as 40 a night have slept at Greentree Church in Egg Harbor Township. Cohen said he is particularly impressed by people coming to New Jersey from Louisiana — where other people went to help after Hurricane Katrina.
“You can’t say enough about the kind of guys who drop everything and come here ... on their own dime and their own time,” Cohen said. “We couldn’t do anything without those volunteers.”
But with them, “They are very quietly doing miraculous things,” said Smith, one of 20 or so homeowners the New City-organized groups have helped so far.
Smith, a former casino employee who works at the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, said her help has included carpenters, plumbers and more skilled workers. So she and Miranda are back in their home after more than three weeks in a motel — although she estimates that “half of my neighborhood still isn’t back.”
The Smiths even have their Christmas tree. They finally lit it a few days ago.
Both mom and daughter are big Christmas movie buffs, including the classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“That is so apropos this year,” Tonya said. “My house has been refurbished with a lot of love and generosity and selflessness. ... And I feel super blessed this holiday season.”
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