Restoring the Jersey Shore, one plank and one property at a time

Clockwise from top: Fairleigh Dickinson University students arrange planks of wood as they rebuild the Lavallette boardwalk destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. Construction equipment dots the beachfront. Sophomore Kimberly Ortiz, 19, signs her name on one of the boards that will become part of the restored boardwalk. (All photos by Dan Landau)

By Kenna Caprio

The sound of hammers echoes down the empty and chilly beachfront in March at the end of Brown Avenue in Lavallette, N.J. as an assembly line of student volunteers places new boardwalk boards, one after the other.

Pieces of broken china, a T-shirt and a doorknocker — all covered with mud — remain behind in a pile after a bulldozer leveled a home on Front Street in Union Beach, N.J. Carefully, students remove rocks, bricks and leftover debris from the lot.

These Fairleigh Dickinson University undergraduates banded together over spring break to aid ongoing rebuilding efforts at the Jersey Shore. Torn asunder by last October’s Hurricane Sandy, beach communities are slowly beginning to reclaim a sense of normalcy. That progress is due to, in no small part, the scores of volunteers flocking to the shore to help rebuild.

“This month and April are packed with alternative spring break projects. It’s wonderful,” says Erin Wolleon, operations coordinator for the grassroots organization Bucket Brigade, which organizes Sandy aid and volunteers in Ortley Beach and Lavallette.

Performing community service on spring break is a long-held tradition at both of FDU’s New Jersey campuses.

“One of the biggest responsibilities of higher education institutions is to give back to the community,” says Matthew Krayton, a campus life coordinator at the College at Florham who is leading that campus’ trip, in conjunction with Americorps. “When a disaster strikes in your own backyard, it’s imperative to help.

“It’s part of our responsibility to make sure students contribute,” Krayton continues. “The students have been very passionate and done small Sandy relief fundraisers. They have a special connection and want to help. This is way to do it.”

The ten students from the Metropolitan Campus and 15 from the College at Florham are hard at work.

Under the direction of the Lavallette Public Works Department, the Metropolitan students quickly develop a system for extending the boardwalk.

“This is the dream project — helping reconstruct the boardwalk,” says Jessica Harris, director of Student Life at the Metropolitan Campus.

Volunteers inspect each side of the fresh planks to determine which one has the least amount of damage or cracks. Then, with one worker on each side, they lay down the planks one-by-one, making sure to arrange the wood evenly. Finally, students hammer the boards into position.

“We laid the boards and hammered them in after cleaning up debris at three houses,” says Jackson Nguyen, an 18-year-old freshman from Camden studying physical therapy at the Metropolitan Campus.

“I’ve been going to the shore all of my life. It means a lot to me to rebuild,” says Nguyen. “It’s coming along great.”

In a short amount of time, the FDU students, along with volunteers from New Jersey City University, have finished arranging one pallet of planks and move efficiently to the next.

“Hammering is the fun part, but it wears you out,” says sophomore and marine biology major Kimberly Ortiz, 19, of Brooklyn, N.Y. with a laugh as she adjusts a board.

Before placing one of the planks, the volunteers each use a Sharpie to sign the underside of the wood, officially leaving their mark on Lavallette.

“We just need to make sure that the places we love will still be around for future generations to enjoy and experience,” says Caitlyn Freda, an 18-year-old freshman from Freehold, N.J. The communication major has fond memories of summers in Seaside. “I’m hoping to give the people whose homes were destroyed some hope again.”

Clockwise from top: Kevin Herbert, graduate assistant for Campus Life housing operations at the College at Florham, holds up lost mementos a doorknocker and postcard on a vacant and muddy lot in Union Beach, N.J. where someone's home once stood. Students and volunteers walk to the next lot to clear more debris. Other items left behind include a postcard, T-shirt, film and a broken mirror.

Up the shoreline in Union Beach, College at Florham students wade around in the mud, hauling small debris to the curb of Front Street across from the Raritan Bay. At one point, the FDU students, Americorps coordinators and volunteers from other schools, form a horizontal line at the back of the lot. Moving forward as one unit, they pick up the last bits of trash before moving on to a new location around the corner.

“It’s great how fast we can get it all done,” says Elona Bilovol, a 20-year-old sophomore and finance major from Cherry Hill, about clearing the properties. “With so many people helping, we can see an instant difference.”

Still, it’s heartbreaking to see what’s left behind. From small trinkets and an old copy of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” on VHS to messages of reassurance scrawled across homes still standing, it’s a lot to take in.

“It’s surprising to see (this damage), since it’s been so many months,” says sophomore and biology major Kevin Abraham, 19, of Jefferson, N.J. “It makes me want to be here even more. I’m hoping to hit as many sites as we can and just do as much as we can while we’re here.”

College at Florham junior Onasis Espinal has a similar mindset. “I just want to give as much help as I can, not be Superman, but close it,” says the 20-year-old psychology major from New Brunswick, N.J.

Once all the small debris is removed from these properties, residents can start to rebuild.

“It’s just nice to be selfless and give back, because, when you really think about it, how much do other people give you?” says Bilovol. “Sometimes it’s not so direct, but it does make a really big difference in your life. I don’t know the exact person who donated the money to help me go to college, but it makes a very big difference to me.”

FDU students have been making a difference across the country with alternative spring break trips in places including Winter Garden, Fla.; Tuba City, Ariz.; and New Orleans, La. for a number of years now.

“I think (alternative spring break) fits with the University mission, because it’s about community building,” says College at Florham junior and communication major Fabiola Pierre, 20, of East Orange.

It’s enough to do this small piece, to be a small part of something so big and important, the students agree. 

“We took down the address so that we can come back and see it all in the summer,” says Leandra Cilindrello, an 18-year-old freshman from Totowa, N.J. studying communications at the Metropolitan Campus. Her faces lights up at the thought of visiting the restored, clean homes and seeing tourists walk across the new boardwalk separating houses from the Atlantic. With volunteers like these, it’s not hard, even on a cloudy day in March, to see what Cilindrello already can — a fully restored shore, bustling with summer visitors.

Feature Story from the FDU Newsroom

FDU Office of Public Relations

   (Metropolitan Campus Office)
Dickinson Hall, Room 3365, H-DH3-1, Teaneck, NJ 07666

Dina Schipper,
Director of Public Relations
Fax: 201-692-7019

Kenna Caprio,
Communications Writer
Fax: 201-692-7019

Helen Grill,
Senior General Clerk
Fax: 201-692-7019

FDU Office of Public Relations

   (College at Florham Office)
East Cottage, Second Floor, M-EC2-01, Madison, NJ 08450

Scott Giglio,
Assistant Director of Public Relations
Fax: 973-443-8671

Daniel Landau,
Public Relations Assistant
Fax: 973-443-8671