Because she lives in Fair Haven and attends the Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School, less than three miles from the ocean, Katie Eskwitt is all too aware of the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy.
“It’s been almost 15 months since that night, and I know lots of people who are still not back in their homes. My family was lucky and suffered very little damage, but others need help, and I want to help them,” said the 17-year-old junior.
That’s one of the reasons she is excited about Sandy Teen Fellows, a volunteer program aimed at helping to rebuild houses and provide other assistance for some of the hardest hit victims of the storm.
The program, an initiative of the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County, had its kickoff meeting at the Sea Bright Borough Hall on Jan. 13.
Through the program, the teen volunteers will learn about remaining challenges caused by Hurricane Sandy, while examining the response through a Jewish lens and developing their leadership skills.
“Most important, they will put their creative ideas into action, taking the lead in the rebuilding effort and a teen philanthropic effort,” said Penny Joel, director of the program. “They also will be sharing their innovative ideas and concerns with the community through the use of social media and in-person meetings with local officials.”
The program was open to all high school students, although, given the overwhelming response to the initial call, ninth-grade applicants were asked to apply again next year.
“We had planned space for 36 teens, and 56 applied, encouraging us to expand participation to the limit our resources could support,” said Rabbi Michelle Pearlman, the federation’s director of community engagement. The corps of teens now stands at 45.
“Our hope is that this inaugural effort will be the first of a series of teen fellowship programs we develop on a yearly basis,” Pearlman said.
The fellows will be partnering with Sea Bright Rising, a nonprofit that provides funding and assistance to the recovery effort, and the St. Bernard Project of New Orleans, which will work with Sea Bright Rising to rebuild 300 homes in Highlands, Sea Bright, and the surrounding areas over the next two years. The nonprofit was created in St. Bernard Parish following Katrina.
“They have been rebuilding homes there for many years and have been reaching out to towns hit by natural disasters around the country,” said Pearlman. “Most recently, they helped to form partnerships and rebuild in Joplin, Mo., the Rockaways, and on Staten Island. This is the first partnership of this kind in New Jersey.”
Mia Malkin, 17, a junior at Freehold Township High School, said she expects her participation in Sandy Teen Fellows will bring her significant emotional rewards. She told NJJN she looks forward to helping people “get a step closer to normal.”
Joe Malinger, 16, of Aberdeen said he’s “intrigued” to learn how a group of teens from different towns and congregations will come together to achieve a common goal. “I hope that I can take away skills that will enable me to be a better leader in my own temple community,” he said.
Frank Lawrence, director of volunteers for Sea Bright Rising, said he expects a big push in the town’s reconstruction in 2014. “Until now,” he said, “almost all the rebuilding has depended on an owner’s ability to pay. Now we’re hoping to leverage volunteer labor to help those who are less financially able to do it on their own.”
Dina Long, the mayor of Sea Bright, thanked the young volunteers at the inaugural program. “I am inspired by the youths who responded. Their service means so much to us all,” said Long, who is not yet back in her own Sea Bright home.
“We’ve made notable accomplishments with clean-up, repair, and repopulation of our residential and commercial areas. This has been due in large part to many kind and generous volunteers, both individuals and groups, and our community is so grateful.”
In an exchange with the mayor following the session, fellow SaraAnn Stanway of Wayside acknowledged how difficult it was to hear about the ongoing struggles of area families even this long after Sandy. She said her commitment to the fellows program will be strengthened by knowing “how this is affecting real people’s lives.”