Nebraska teens converge at the Shore to help with Sandy cleanup

Nebraska volunteers Ryan Koch (right), 15, and Elijah Keliwitz, 16, shovel Sandy debris in Toms River.
Nebraska volunteers Ryan Koch (right), 15, and Elijah Keliwitz, 16, shovel Sandy debris in Toms River. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 25, 2014

SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J. - A two-day drive from home, they came on buses from across the country. They watched as the cornfields of rural America morphed into the lush, deciduous trees separating major East Coast cities. A series of "Welcome to" signs slipped by until their buses came to the end of the line - the Atlantic Ocean, something that many of the volunteers with Lutheran Social Ministries last week had never seen before.

They weren't in Nebraska anymore. It was the Jersey Shore.

Outside of New Jersey, word that Hurricane Sandy disaster relief is ongoing might come as a surprise. When Kari Fry, one of the organizers from Nebraska, was researching places affected by natural disasters for their summer 2014 mission trip, the Jersey Shore seemed like a perfect fit and a great way to expose the teenagers - 264 of them - from Nebraska churches to a different part of the country.

"All signs pointed" here, Fry said Wednesday. "It's a humbling experience [to be] able to connect them with something that's so much bigger than themselves."

The volunteers, ranging in age from 15 to 18, seemed to enjoy the exposure, too.

"I love it. It's beautiful here," said Emily Folkerts, 18, who saw the ocean for the first time Monday, though a big wave coming in stopped her from diving in right away. "The people so far have been nice."

And although they've been having fun and visiting places like Manhattan (the consensus: Times Square is pretty cool, and the subway was a bit scary for some), and experiencing Northeastern culture ("Everybody has tried to do" the accents at some point, Fry joked), they've set a premium on helping those in need.

They've been pulling weeds in backyards, painting, tearing out moldy Sheetrock, replacing windows, and tidying up. Other groups canvassed New Jersey neighborhoods during the week, hoping to raise awareness of the need for volunteers in areas affected by Sandy. Still others volunteered in soup kitchens.

"I like to know what I'm doing is kind of important to somebody," Melissa Hinrichs, 16, said Wednesday outside of the house she and several other volunteers had been doing construction on in Toms River.

All 314 volunteers - some adults went on the trip as well - wore red Wednesday. They were easily identifiable on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, where they clustered to get ice cream and henna tattoos.

Before peeling off into smaller groups, though, the youths from Nebraska staged a march north along the boardwalk to celebrate the end of their week on the Jersey Shore. They began softly singing "Lean on Me."

People passing by stopped and stared while the kids in red shirts marched.

At first, their singing resembled Sunday hymns, and about halfway through, the energy kicked up, they clapped to the beat, and the chorus morphed into something more reminiscent of a lively gospel number.

"It makes me feel proud to live here," Vinny Scuzzese, the owner of a game booth along the boardwalk, said as they walked by. "It makes me proud that people care . . . that people care to restore the Shore."

Some locals approached the group to see what the commotion was all about.

"We don't have a Shore - it's good to be here," Bishop Brian Maas said to a man who stopped to chat.

"We get at least as much out of it as we leave behind," Maas said, "and we hope we leave behind a lot."

According to Amy Pennenga, the disaster-relief coordinator for Lutheran Social Ministries of New Jersey, there is still a lot of work to be done to recover from the effects of Sandy, which struck Oct. 29, 2012. In New Jersey, 360,000 homes or businesses were damaged or destroyed at an estimated cost of $37 billion.

Volunteer rates, though, have been declining. Last year, in August and September, she had eight groups volunteering each month. This year, that number has dropped to one per month.

"Just because it's not in the news doesn't mean that the need isn't there," Pennenga said. "This is very undervalued and underreported. The recovery is still happening. It's going to go on for years to come."

The volunteers from Nebraska leave the Jersey Shore on Thursday with plenty of new memories, seashells, and novelty T-shirts. For most, they have the experience of their first time seeing an ocean. They also head home with the stories of families who lost their houses and belongings, and the hardships that they have endured.

"People are always going to need help," Folkerts said, "and someone needs to help them."


Those interested in volunteering with Lutheran Social Ministries of New Jersey can contact 609-699-4137.

cmindock@phillynews.com

856-779-3237 @clarkmindock

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