By Teresa K. Weaver, Habitat for Humanity International’s director of editorial services
On Wednesday, Habitat for Humanity staff and volunteers began handing over the keys of 24 Habitat Mobile Resource Units to Habitat leaders in New Jersey and New York communities struggling to recover from Superstorm Sandy.
Habitat CEO Jonathan Reckford visited several homes on Staten Island that are being gutted for rebuilding. Volunteers from Habitat and local nonprofit All Hands hauled out armloads of rotten floor planks and moldy drywall at the Fox Beach Avenue home of Alex Dionne. “It’s painful to hear what people have gone through,” Reckford said, walking through the Fox Beach Avenue area where three people died at the height of Superstorm Sandy. “No matter how much you see on the news, there’s nothing like being here and seeing it for yourself.”
Every story is unique, but the heartbreak is universal.
Forty-seven-year-old TamiLynn Willoughby bought a condemned 960-square-foot house in Union Beach the day before 9/11 and spent years renovating it. “I put every little penny I had in it,” she said. “It wasn’t the best. It was a box, but it was my box. And it had a soul.”
Willoughby spent 23 days living in her house without electricity. Since the power came back on, she’s been working by herself and with friends on the cleanup. She’s already gutted the downstairs and repaired the electrical outlets. But the sight of Phil Welch Jr., a volunteer with Habitat Northeast Monmouth County, brought happy tears to her eyes. “This is awesome,” she said. “I can’t even believe you’re here. I’m in shock.”
Despite all that she’s lost, Willoughby said she considers herself blessed. “I feel so grateful that you’re here,” she said to the volunteers. “The bad came in, but the good is here, too.”
William Johnson, a homeowner on Staten Island’s Lincoln Avenue, shook hands with nearly every volunteer who came to help muck out his home Wednesday. “It’s contagious generosity,” he said. “People see others doing good work, and it’s infectious. They want to help, too.”
Examples of generosity were everywhere.
While home on winter break from Philadelphia’s Drexler University, 19-year-old Ryan Norman woke up before daybreak Wednesday to put on a highlighter-green vest, work gloves and a timid smile. Surrounded by strangers, the first-time Habitat volunteer dove into hanging sheetrock, talking with homeowners and making fast friends out of veteran volunteers from the New Jersey area.
As a New Jersey native, Norman said he felt like he had a moral obligation to volunteer. “I’d be hating myself if I just hit the snooze button and slept through this,” he said. “I’d definitely do it again.”
With reporting by Soyia Ellison, Julie Gurnon, Julia Sellers and Tracie Troha
- Dec. 18, 2012: Making a tangible difference 
- Dec. 17, 2012: Sandy caravan makes quite an impression