One year after Hurricane Sandy pounded the East Coast, Samaritan's Purse is helping homeowners continue to experience God’s restoring power
Nearly a year after Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc along the East Coast, a group that knows what it means to weather a storm, pick up the pieces and find restoration gathered on a sunny front lawn in Bellmore, N.Y., on October 18 for a home dedication ceremony.
The most cheerful face belonged to 88-year-old Roslyn Taber. Dressed in red from head-to-toe of her tiny frame, she greeted guests with an energetic smile. Roslyn is one of 35-40 people in New York and New Jersey who will have their homes repaired or rebuilt by Samaritan’s Purse through our Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts, which could last up to another year.
Samaritan’s Purse responded in the immediate aftermath of the superstorm, which made landfall on Oct. 29 last year. In our initial relief phase, over 8,600 volunteers helped clear debris, remove downed trees, and make emergency repairs for more than 1,300 homeowners.
We transitioned from relief to rebuilding in the spring. Since then, 700 volunteers have come from all over the country to restore homes and lend a compassionate ear to the stories of homeowners like Roslyn.
Making a House a Home
On the day Roslyn and her late husband, Melvin, moved into this house 52 years ago, they barely brought in all the boxes before they heard someone knocking. Surprised to already have a visitor, Roslyn opened the door to find their neighbors asking to play cards. Delighted, she invited them in. Due to the shortage of furniture, the group played the first of many card games in the Bellmore house on unopened boxes.
As the years went by, the Tabers gained a collection of card tables and chairs for hosting friends. Of the things Roslyn lost to Hurricane Sandy, these were especially disappointing.
Five feet of seawater filled Roslyn’s finished basement that had also held things like her father’s typewriter and important records and documents, as well as the memories of countless gatherings with friends and loved ones, including a surprise party for Melvin.
But the water didn’t reach the items Roslyn holds closest to her heart—photographs. They occupy appointed spots in the front entryway, the upstairs hallway, and the shelves of the china cabinet. If you push a button on one picture frame, the voices of two grandchildren exclaim, “We love you!”
There is also the black-and-white photo taken the day after she and Melvin met. It captures a group of teenagers sitting on a beach and smiling at the camera—except for Melvin. He’s looking at Roslyn.
Then there is the photo from their 50th wedding anniversary and numerous pictures of children and grandchildren, the people Roslyn refers to as her “jewelry.”
“Even though I see the pictures every day, I can still look at them and enjoy it,” she said.
The past few years have been especially difficult for Roslyn. Melvin passed away three years ago at age 90. A World War II medic turned baker, he had a gift for relating with people of all kinds and ages.
“If someone was 2 he was 2. If someone was 6 he was 6. If someone was 90 he was 90,” Roslyn said.
She was still feeling the loss of her husband when Hurricane Sandy hit. As the storm approached, she put two days’ worth of clothes in a plastic bag and went to a friend’s place. She came home a month later to find the neighborhood overwhelmed and her house in disrepair.
“I think Sandy was devastating and so long-lasting,” she said. “Maybe at this stage of my life, I felt it even more. You don’t know which way to turn. You can’t believe it happened.”
Roslyn wanted to stay in the house she shared with Melvin for five decades—the home with all of the memories—but like many homeowners affected by Sandy, she had to face the reality that it might not be possible. Then her daughter, Karen, found out about our work in the area. Our program reaches out to people without resources for repairs and offers to restore or rebuild their homes at no cost.
“When Samaritan’s Purse entered this picture, they were the best thing that could’ve happened to me at such a time,” Roslyn said.
More than 60 volunteers spent over 2,500 hours in Roslyn’s basement installing new plumbing, drywall, cabinets, flooring, and electrical fixtures, as well as painting and making other improvements. The finished space is clean, bright, and ready to hold future family gatherings and birthday parties.
“I feel that there is good, and I’m breathing it in now. I’m taking a deep breath,” Roslyn said. “I’m having some quality of my former life. I feel certainly grateful to the people who made it possible and helped me out when I wasn’t capable of doing it myself.”
Volunteers also spent time around the dining room table with Roslyn, hearing the stories behind many of her photos.
“I have a lot of good memories, and now I’m adding Samaritan’s Purse to that list,” she said. “More than fixing my home, I felt that I made friends.”
Noticing the Need
Another face in the crowd at Roslyn’s dedication was that of Steve Gahagan, program manager for the rebuilds in New York. He opened the ceremony and shared the parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke 10.
Steve sees the needs that still exist in this community a year after the superstorm.
“You have to look closely to see many, many homes that are empty or damaged,” he said. “If you drive through it can be an illusion, but you have to take time to stop and be involved.”
The locals know. They can easily name a friend, family member, co-worker, or neighbor who is still displaced. In fact, the house next door to Roslyn remains empty.
“Sandy was huge, and we’re meeting a small percentage of the overall need,” he said. “But it’s important to people like Roslyn and Helga. It’s worth it.”
Steve also sees the spiritual impact of this service.
“There are so many people here who have never encountered true Christians,” he said. “It astounds them that people will come from everywhere and do this for people they don’t know and will probably never see again this side of Heaven.”
At our New York rebuild alone, volunteers have come from 26 states to reach out to homeowners by doing things like painting trim, installing drywall, and even just taking the time to have a meaningful conversation.
“I see miracles take place constantly with volunteers, homeowners, and staff,” Steve said. “You see God at work and how it affects everyone around you.”
Starting New Chapters
Steve Purtz, who presented Roslyn with a Bible signed by Samaritan’s Purse staff, also sees miracles taking place through the work.
“I always cry at the dedications because you know the Lord is touching them,” he said. “He’s always at work, and we get to be a part of it.”
Along with coordinating logistics for the rebuild project, Steve encourages volunteers to use their God-given gifts to minister to homeowners.
“A door will dry in two weeks, but the faces of these people will last forever.”
Later in the dedication, construction supervisor Kevin Vallas handed Roslyn new keys to symbolize a new chapter in her home.
Kevin recently visited nearby Freeport, his hometown, and discovered that the hurricane wiped out all the landmarks he could remember. He stopped and talked to a friend on the street where he grew up and also learned that every house had flooded.
“It was rough to realize that all my childhood neighbors were devastated,” he said through tears.
Being personally impacted by the storm allows Kevin to relate to homeowners in a special way. He doesn’t hesitate to tell people about the healing power God has exhibited in his life and how others can experience the same.
Leaning over to Roslyn in her yard, he said, “God fills us up again, and we pour it out. That’s how it works.”
Partnering to Reach a Community
A comforting face to many present was that of Pastor Peter Conforti of Full Gospel Church, who offered the closing prayer at Roslyn’s dedication.
Hurricane Sandy left a foot of water in both the pastor’s home and church in Island Park, N.Y.. Full Gospel didn’t have insurance; it didn’t even have electricity. The chances of being able to use the building to minister to storm victims appeared slim.
Then Samaritan’s Purse approached Pastor Conforti with the idea of repairing the structure while simultaneously partnering with the church to reach out to the community. He could hardly believe it and recalled asking our staff, “How could you be able to use this space?”
The staff replied, “Don’t worry, we’ll use it.”
Full Gospel became the New York rebuild site for Samaritan’s Purse and an extension of the church’s work in the area. Volunteers from near and far came pouring in to donate items for hurricane victims, assist with the recovery efforts, and help repair the church.
“I had a destroyed building, but ministry was happening,” he said with amazement still lingering in his voice. “People’s lives were being changed.”
The neighborhood started to recognize the orange T-shirts worn by volunteers, and people stopped them on the streets to say thank you. As of the church’s rededication ceremony on October 13th, 140 people had accepted Christ as a result of the relief and recovery efforts.
“It’s a hard community to reach, but this opened the door for us to minister the Gospel,” Peter said.
Even more, the neighborhood’s view of the church is changing. While evangelical faith is still foreign to many in the area, the act of being there for people in their time of need speaks loud and clear. It is opening ears and softening hearts to Christ’s message.
“There are so many people out there who still need help,” Peter said. “This gives us a dimension of ministry we didn’t have before. It’s opened an avenue to reach into people’s lives.”
Full Gospel’s partnership with Samaritan’s Purse has also impacted the Conforti family.
“The hope that Samaritan’s Purse brought to us, to me personally, I can’t even describe it,” he said. “They brought reassurance that the Lord would help us and encouraged my family.”
Standing Alongside Others
After the ceremony, attendees enjoyed cake and conversation. Two of the people mingling in the yard were Nancy Giuffrida and her daughter, Susan.
Their house was the first to be completed in the New York rebuild. They make a point to come support fellow homeowners and frequently attend dinners with the volunteers at Full Gospel Church.
“My neighbors said more than once that when they came through our house, they knew it was love that put it back together, that God was the one who put it back together,” Susan said. “Love is the universal language Christ has given us. People see it and they know it.”
Other faces scattered throughout the crowd belonged to volunteers from Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Ohio.
One of them, Frank Glick, is a retired contractor who doesn’t like to talk much; he likes to act.
“The Church takes care of the downtrodden, and I am planting seeds by being here. You just never know what will come of it,” he said.
Another volunteer, Chris Miller, loves to talk to almost anyone he crosses paths with, including a burglar alarm installer he met while helping a homeowner.
“People are what make a difference, and there are opportunities everywhere,” he said. “For God so loved the world, and He loves those people.”
God’s Work Continues
Roslyn, two Steves, Kevin, Pastor Conforti, the Giuffridas, volunteers and the other faces in the crowd, make an unassuming bunch on this afternoon in the yard of an unassuming neighborhood. But transformation is taking place. It’s a day together to remember and believe that God is the Repairer of Broken Walls and the Restorer of Streets with Dwellings (Isaiah 58:12).
In the coming year, a new group of volunteers will travel to New York and New Jersey each week to help homeowners still in need and show the compassion of Jesus Christ. New faces will be added to the story of God’s work in the Hurricane Sandy rebuild.
As the time at Roslyn’s came to an end, she paused next to the tree her uncle planted and observed people eating last bites of cake and posing for final photos—which could very likely find their way to the walls of her new basement.
She took a moment, looked around, and said, “My friends…all my friends…how lucky can you get?”