The Gift of Hope

Following Superstorm Sandy, Denise Gavala had one goal: make sure her parents never had to see their home of 52 years damaged or even gutted.

Knowing nothing more than that she had to fix her family’s home in Ortley Beach, N.J., Denise spent as much time as she could removing carpets, drywall and insulation. With guidance from various nonprofit organizations, Denise learned the steps she needed to take and how to take them. With a variety of volunteers, she was able to rebuild almost everything, including a wheelchair ramp for her father.

Work stopped, though, when the time came to do the kitchen and the bathroom, projects well beyond Denise’s comfort zone. She reached out to Northern Ocean Habitat and found the help she needed. “[Habitat] came, and my house was starting to look like my house again,” Denise says. “By the time my parents got here, they never walked into the house that they had for 52 years and worked for and lived here and raised kids here — they never saw it gutted.”

After spending several months with family in Florida, Audrey and Mike Gavala saw their home for the first time in early May. Though it wasn’t complete, it was nowhere near the devastation they saw when they looked around their community. About a month later, the three Gavalas were able to sleep in their home, the first of many nights as the only people in the neighborhood.

As Denise’s work neared completion, those around her were still at the beginning or in the middle of their own hard road back. Denise realized she was in a position to help. She had already done things like have an electrical inspection, find plumbers and discover the simple joy of having a chair to sit in at the end of a hard day’s work, so she offered help to her neighbors in every way she could. “We’ve kind of set up a resource center at my house, and any time I’m here, my neighbors know they can come over and talk to me,” she says.

“I remember the worst day. It wasn’t so much throwing out all my parents’ belongings on the first floor, it was cleaning out our shed. It had over 7 feet of water in it. It had all of my dad’s fishing stuff. The one thing my father can do is fish, if I’m with him, and I just started crying. I think it’s the only time I cried.

“When people walk in and they start to cry, I tell them ‘It’s OK. You’re going to mourn for what you lost, and it’s OK to do that. There’s going to be a point in time when you’re going to see the other side.’

“I know,” she says, “because I did.”

She has hosted dinners, offered her bathroom and shower for use, made the occasional ice cream run, and opened her home for group sessions with counselors. “I encourage people to come in. I say ‘Have a seat; sit for a minute. It’s normal here; my house is normal. Your life is not normal for you right now, but this is normal, and you’re going to have this back again.’

“What a lot of my neighbors have been calling my house and me is inspiration,” she says. “When they come to the house and I tell them volunteers did all this — probably over 100 hands touched this house, including Habitat — they look at this and they feel uplifted. For me to be able to uplift someone when they’re so sad and they can’t see an end, that makes me feel good.”

— Megan Frank