A Good Day with Helga

October 28, 2013 • United States
Helga Walby Lido Beach, NY

A woman whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy last year celebrates its repair with friends and volunteers.

Courtney Keen, a Samaritan’s Purse staff writer, spent a week at our New York rebuild project recently. Our teams are rebuilding homes that were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy on October 29, 2012.

My conversation with Helga pauses every time a bird comes to the feeder outside the kitchen window. She announces each one that lands and how often she sees it.

After living in Lido Beach, New York, for more than 40 years, Helga is very familiar with the birds that visit her feeders.

Helga Walby  Lido Beach, NY

Samaritan’s Purse staff member Katie McNally presents Helga with a certificate that says “Paid in Full” to Helga at the dedication of her new home.

She explains that after Hurricane Sandy, the birds seemed hesitant to come back. Now a year later, they are starting to appear more. But the blue jay, she laments, has only come once.

Six or seven birdfeeders dotted Helga’s backyard before the superstorm washed them away. A Samaritan’s Purse volunteer relocated one of the remaining few to this spot outside the kitchen window to allow Helga a closer view.

The volunteer was one of 64 who came from all over the U.S., including Hawaii and Alaska, to help rebuild the bottom floor of Helga’s house. Later on this afternoon, Samaritan’s Purse will host a dedication ceremony for the finished space.

The spotless tile floors and freshly painted white walls show no indication of the four feet of water that the hurricane dumped into Helga’s house, ruining major appliances as well as family photos and Christmas ornaments.

“It looked like a war zone for weeks,” she says. “I never thought I’d get my house back in order.”

Her house is the place where she raised two biological children and two foster children, at times working several jobs to make ends meet. She reminisces about being an editor for a publishing company and playfully admits to her lingering habit of highlighting grammatical errors in newspapers and books.

Helga Walby  Lido Beach, NY

Volunteers from across the U.S. worked on Helga’s home. On the day of her dedication, these volunteers and staff members shared the day with her.

But the life she built in Lido Beach and the “certain attachment” she feels to her neighborhood were severely threatened after Hurricane Sandy.

“It was like the whole beach was pushed two blocks inward,” she says of the town that previously hadn’t flooded since she’s lived here.

In the wake of the storm, Helga didn’t have the resources for such massive repairs. She says if no one had come to help, she probably would’ve had to sell her damaged house as it was and simply walk away from the place she loves.

But Helga knows the courage it takes to dig in and battle the ups and downs of a recovery process. She has undergone three major operations in the past four years and overcome two forms of cancer. She has chosen to let these challenges improve her outlook on life.

“I have a deeper appreciation for things,” she says. “I wake up with a good feeling saying, ‘Today will be a good day.’”

One of the best days Helga experienced after the hurricane was when her long-time neighbor, Christine, told her that Samaritan’s Purse could help rebuild her home free-of-charge. With revived hope, Helga embarked on yet another journey of recovery—this time alongside new friends in orange T-shirts.

Over the course of eight weeks, Samaritan’s Purse volunteer crews worked to replace drywall and insulation, put down new flooring, install cabinets and appliances, replace doors, repair outdoor fencing, and more. Helga kept them company along the way with her spirited presence and conversation.

Together, they not only built rooms but also friendships. Many of the volunteers still call her and send cards.

“This was a God-send,” she says. “I am more than grateful for their help and to have met so many people who will become my friends now. As you get older, you value friendships more.”

Helga explains how the volunteers showed God’s love by giving more of themselves in the sense of kindness and understanding. But Helga certainly makes that easy.

“The volunteers just fall in love with you,” logistics coordinator Steve Purtz told her.

Friends Celebrate a Completed Home

And a few short hours after our conversation, many people who love Helga will gather in the new bottom floor of her house to celebrate what God has done in her life over the past year and to pray for her future in the restored home.

Helga’s long-time friend, Betty, who drove her to dozens of cancer treatments, will stand to her right. Helga’s neighbor, Christine, will stand to her left with tears in her eyes.

“When I went to Samaritan’s Purse about Helga, I never would have thought it would be this much and that people would come from everywhere to help,” she will tell me. “All these people are like angels helping her.”

Also among the crowd will be 10 volunteers, along with other homeowners assisted by Samaritan’s Purse, Pastor Peter Conforti of Full Gospel Church, and staff members.

Helga, wearing all black with a long strand of pearls, will be her peaceful, joyful self. After being presented with a journal signed by all of the volunteers, a Bible signed by the staff, and a certificate representing the costs being paid-in-full, she will say a lot in a few words: “My gratitude is immense.”

The ceremony will be prayer filled and heartfelt. And afterwards, volunteer Chris Miller will reflect on the experience saying, “I could just see God at work at the dedication. That’s what God designed us to do—to help and love each other.”

But for right now, it is just Helga and me sitting at her kitchen table talking about the events of the past year and her hopes for the future.

She wants to visit her brother in Germany soon, and she dreams of dancing at her oldest grandchild’s wedding when the time comes. She also hopes to do one nice thing for someone every day.

“Even if it’s just a nice greeting, you never know what that can do,” she says.

Before leaving, I help hang up some blue and white curtains above the window, an easy task for a tall person like myself. I think about Helga’s words and remember that a nice thing doesn’t always have to be hard.

When I step back from the window, the birdfeeder is swinging from a recent visitor. I don’t catch him with my eye, but I find myself hoping it was a blue jay.