United Way of Ocean County Celebrates Homeowner’s Progress

Oct 01, 2015
Photo by: Pat Johnson Hedy Falcetta thanks the United Way volunteers who have helped to rebuild her Sandy-damaged home in Little Egg Harbor.

Rebuilding her home after it was damaged by Superstorm Sandy wasn’t always the happy occasion it was on Wednesday, Sept. 23, when homeowner Hedy Falcetta was able to express her thanks to volunteers and representatives from the United Way of Ocean County.

After her home in the Mystic Island section of Little Egg Harbor was inundated with 5 feet of water, the 74-year-old widow received a grant through the state’s RREM (Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation) program and, acting as her own contractor, started the arduous process of rebuilding. Even after receiving the grant, she realized she would need more help than she could afford. That’s when she was introduced to the volunteers from United Way of Ocean County.

On Wednesday, Linda Gyimoty, executive director of United Way of Ocean County, was on site to congratulate Falcetta on her nearly finished home and to thank the many volunteers who had helped to move the rebuilding process along.

A $100,000 grant from the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund in 2014 allowed the UWOC to hire eight full-time AmeriCorps members and help 40 families with Sandy-related recovery work in the last year, said Gyimoty. UWOC also partners with the Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group to link those who need help with volunteers willing to do the work.

On this day, 42 volunteers from Exelon Corp.’s Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Plant and from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in Maryland were working on sites in Little Egg Harbor, Manahawkin, Point Pleasant and Ortley Beach.

Falcetta’s home was the second home in Little Egg Harbor to receive such assistance, and 17 volunteers from Oyster Creek were at her home to move 15 tons of landscaping stone, caulk wallboard in the garage and build shelves.

“Today we see the results of what people with a common purpose can do in a community,” said Gyimoty.

“Oyster Creek is our most generous corporate partner,” she continued. “They have raised $312,000 this year for United Way for use in our communities.”

Kim McKenzie, disaster case manager for UWOC’s Recovery Plan, said when she met Falcetta, the homeowner had been in the RREM program but did not have an effective disaster case manager and had some unmet needs. “She was working as her own contractor and was doing insulation work on her own. She needed issues resolved with a couple of contractors, and we were able to help her there.”

To coordinate a volunteer effort going on the ground, the UWOC partnered with AmeriCorps, the social works federal program that incorporates the Vista program.

Robert Clark is UWOC’s AmeriCorp’s construction manager who had worked to get volunteers to Falcetta’s house. “I get to work with volunteers every day from corporations, nonprofits and faith-based groups,” said Clark. I’m glad to see a representative from Congressman Frank LoBiondo’s office, someone from the governor’s office and the mayor of Little Egg because we all need to work together on the federal, state and local level, plus the nonprofits, to get this done.”

Clark said this was the second time he was at Falcetta’s house. The first time he came with 30 college students who were on spring break, and they put up 110 pieces of wallboard.

“I get to make some lifelong friends like Hedy, and I can tell you she is an amazing cook,” Clark said, “and I get to have the greatest joy when I see the homeowners move back into their house.”

Money for the UWOC partnership with AmeriCorps runs out in December, but the groups are asking the federal and state governments to extend the partnership.

Little Egg Harbor Mayor Art Midgley said he knew Hedy Falcetta personally, and he congratulated her on her birthday. “She’s German and she’s tough, but what a sweetheart. I was so glad that United Way of Ocean County took the initiative to get Hedy the help that she needed. It is unbelievable the amount of work these volunteers have done and continue to do to get this lady back in her home.

“As mayor of Little Egg I got to see first-hand the devastation and hardships that Hurricane Sandy imposed on many of our residents. It was awful and discouraging and, at times, dangerous to the families that were desperately trying to get their lives back to normal. And today, we are all witness to the kindness and unselfish acts of so many people who worked tirelessly to assist some of the families in Ocean County.”

Robert Geist, a representative from LoBiondo’s office, said the day was a culmination of efforts that began in LoBiondo’s office as he advocated for funds for New Jersey to rebuild after Sandy. “It’s wonderful to see people coming together to rebuild – house by house, block by block, community by community. But there are thousands of Hedys still waiting. Though we recognize her accomplishment, we realize others are not yet where she is, and we hope, we work, we sweat every day, until every person like Hedy gets home again.”

Kim Frawley, executive director of the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund, said after Sandy hit the coast of New Jersey, Gov. Christie called his wife, Mary Pat, to tell her New Jersey was going to need more financial help to recover from the disaster and she had to take the lead.

“She sat down at her kitchen table with a flashlight and started to write, and in the end she raised $40 million for HSNJRF,” said Frawley. “We’ve been working the last three years to put these resources in capable hands and United Way of Ocean County is one of those organizations.”

Frawley said $38 million went to 109 organizations active in recovery work and 50 percent of the funds were specified for housing assistance. “We realize that it is really hard work. It takes time, perseverance; there are unexpected challenges and delays. So congratulations to Hedy and all those like her who stay the course.

“It takes many hands to bring people home. And there is a lot more work that has to be done,” she added.

Sue D’Ambrosio, spokeswoman for Exelon’s Oyster Creek plant, took the opportunity to praise her co-workers. “We have 600 men and women working at Oyster Creek, and all are dedicated to safety and excellence. We take pride and pleasure in our employees who step out of their jobs a few times a year to share their experience.

“We’re a family, and we’re glad to partner with United Way, an organization that does so much for people of our county. Today, 17 volunteers stepped out of their jobs to make Hedy’s house a little bit nicer.”

Nancy Erickson president of UWOC, thanked the Oyster Creek volunteers. “They are an inspiration to me. They have a culture of generosity, and they will be working tomorrow as well.”

Mel Reid, a representative of Presbyterian Disaster Relief, said 25 volunteers came all the way from Gaithersburg, Md., to work a full week on rehabilitating Sandy-damaged homes from one end of the county to the other. “To be a volunteer means to get off your rear end and get out your checkbook,” he said.

When Falcetta was brought to the microphone she was brief. “Thanks to everyone,” she said, and “I’ll remember you all in my prayers.”

After the TV cameras had packed up and gone, Falcetta took a board and asked volunteers to write their names and addresses on it so she could display it in her house. She has done this with every volunteer group.

Falcetta said she and her husband bought the lagoon-side house in 1986, and added rooms in 1988. They also raised the house a few feet in the early 1990s, but unfortunately not high enough to keep stormwater out.

“In ’92 we had a foot in the house, but what was a foot? It came in and it went out,” she said. Then in 2002 and again in 2003 we had a foot of water, but then in 2012 with Sandy, we had 5 feet in the house. Such a mess – I thought I would just fix it up and then move back in, but then I heard flood insurance was going to go up to $10,000 a year unless I elevated it, so I qualified for the RREM grant and elevated the house 11 feet.”

Falcetta said the contractors she hired wanted too much money for the work that they did, so she bought her own building supplies, and the Long Term Recovery Group sent her to AmeriCorps and United Way of Ocean County for help.

On Wednesday, under her supervision, the volunteers from Oyster Creek were finishing up installing shelves in the garage and the landscaping that has to be done before she can qualify for a certificate of occupancy.

When asked when she expected to be back in her house, Falcetta answered, “I don’t say anything about a date. I’ve learned not to. But I hope soon.”

Of her long journey to recovery, she said, “You know, a brick falls off your house, what are you going to do? You have to put the brick back.”

— Pat Johnson

patjohnson@the sandpaper. net.

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