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With help from Habitat, Sandy survivor sees ‘brand new, beautiful day’


Stefani Morris and her mother, Leslie, spent a morning in Times Square helping volunteers build Leslie’s new Habitat home. Hurricane Sandy destroyed Leslie’s house in Sea Bright, New Jersey.

By Soyia Ellison


NEW YORK — After Hurricane Sandy destroyed her home in Sea Bright, New Jersey, Leslie Morris cut back on church attendance.

It wasn’t that the storm shook her faith; it was that she couldn’t get to her little Methodist church without passing the remains of the house she had called home for 17 years.

“I couldn’t stand to drive by my house,” she said. “It was like watching someone you love decay. I almost had to put it out of my mind. You couldn’t get emotional about it. Otherwise, you’d just cry and cry. I didn’t have time for that. I had to focus on what I needed to do next.”

At times, it all seemed like too much.

“But,” said her daughter, Stefani, “Habitat has been with us the whole way.”

Habitat for Humanity in Monmouth County helped her get the permits to tear down her old home and did the demolition work last September. Now it is building a new home with her on the spot where her old one stood.

Actually, the new house first sprang to life in a most unusual spot: New York’s Times Square. Employees from eight Lowe’s stores volunteered their time to frame the house in Times Square as part of the company’s “Hammers for Habitat” drive, which aims to recruit 100,000 new Habitat volunteers this year.

“Seventeen months ago, we never could have imagined this moment,” Morris told the volunteers who’d gathered early one cold, March morning. “Thank you.”


Starting over

Immediately following the storm, Leslie, a dental assistant, and her son, Neil, spent about a month living with Stefani, who works as a nurse.

Sharing an apartment wasn’t easy: “One bedroom, two birds, two dogs, a son, a daughter, me — ugh,” Morris said, remembering those weeks.

Eventually, she and Neil moved into an apartment in Fort Monmouth, a decommissioned Army base that was rehabbed for Sandy survivors. She spent most of the next year dealing with government and insurance company red tape. During one of her trips to Sea Bright’s borough hall to see what sort of help she might be eligible for, she met a volunteer who handed her a Habitat brochure.

“Now that I look back on it,” Morris said, “that changed everything.”

With the house now just a few months from completion, Morris is daydreaming of a happier future.

“Just to be able to walk down my street, to walk to my mom’s house, to walk into downtown,” she said, smiling.

She is eager to get Neil, who has autism, back to a familiar place and routine.

“He’s been under incredible stress,” she said. “He did very good for the first six months. He was my rock. But I think he just started losing hope.”

Watching the walls of her new house go up in Times Square in March, Morris felt a flood of gratitude.

“It happened so fast. It’s like going from one reality to another,” she said. “This is a brand new, beautiful day.”