If you took a drive around Brigantine, one of five barrier islands in Atlantic County, New Jersey, you'd be pleased at the progress of its cleanup from Super Storm Sandy. You might marvel, thinking, just five months from those dismal days when five feet of flood waters covered the entire island, things are looking crisp and clean.
Then maybe you'd take a closer look. You might notice that Halloween decorations still hang in the windows of many homes. That's because no one has been able to live in them since October 29, 2012, when the storm hit.
"From the outside, everything looked normal," said Carson Schoener, a Tamaqua Middle School seventh-grader, one of nine members of the Christ Evangelical Free Church, Lehighton, who recently spent four days helping residents repair their homes there. "But once you saw the insides, you saw that there is still so much devastation."
Christ Evangelical Free Church Pastor Greg Laible and Youth Pastor Keith House explained how the trip was arranged.
"When the disaster occurred people from the Beacon Evangelical Free Church (in Brigantine) were helping right away," Laible said. "Keith contacted them and asked what we could do to help."
During a worship service locally, the two talked about the need to reach out to Sandy storm victims in New Jersey who needed help. The two church leaders soon found themselves shepherding a trip with seven members of their congregation: Carson Schoener, Rick and Barb Leiby, Lisa Krouse, Cinda Nothstein and her son Eric, and Bruce Snyder. The Leibys are Schoener's Uncle and Aunt.
Members of the Beacon church hosted them at the church, where they slept on air mattresses and met for meals and devotions. In four days, they worked on three houses, completing projects such as hanging drywall, spackling and sanding the drywall, rebuilding fences and decks, hanging insulation, installing tile and even crawling under houses to clean out debris. They worked 15-hour days.
"Everything is built on sand, and there aren't any basements, just crawl spaces," House said. "That was one of the hardest moments, for me, when I crawled under a house to remove duct work."
House explained that according to Federal Emergency Management Agency and insurance company directives, some homeowners must "raise" their houses. The process is called "home elevation" and it's very costly, he said.
"I was under the house, in a very tight space, and I got wet and cold," House said. "I began to feel that I couldn't do it any longer, and I prayed for the strength to continue and received it."
Countless prayers of that nature are emanating from the Brigantine area's residents. Now that the initial national attention and response has waned, the local people are beginning to feel a sort of desperation, Barb Leiby said.
"A lot of people are still suffering, and there are many different projects and needs," Leiby said. "I think the people there are starting to feel abandoned."
"We went there wanting to serve, to help people with the repairs on their houses," she added. "But I think that although that part of the recovery is very important, it's also important to them to know that there are people who care about them and what they're going through."
Laible said that reaching out to help others is part of the church's "relational ministry" which has its foundations in seeking connections to others and looking for ways to help those in need.
"In the morning, before we went to our assignments, we prayed for unity," he said. "We wanted that for our group, and we also wanted unity between us and the people we were helping."
That message wasn't lost on the young people who were part of the group. Carson Schoener said that when he got back to Tamaqua, after seeing the scope of the problems in New Jersey, he expected to hear about it from time to time on the news. But that didn't happen.
"It's like most people have forgotten about it and think that it's over," Schoener said. "There was more news about things that don't seem that important, like about what singers and movie stars are doing."
"It was really a good learning experience," he added. "When somebody needs help you should help them if you can. I'd go again."
Barb Leiby agreed.
"I encourage people to look into it and seek ways to help," she said. "There are still countless sad stories and it's nice to do something for someone else."
As they made the trip from the island, Laible said, he couldn't help but be struck by an irony - in the same area of New Jersey the parking lots at Casino's were full. Inside those businesses, he theorized, people were hoping to get rich.
But they were going about it the wrong way.
"When we left there, I think all of us felt a lot of satisfaction with what we'd done because we'd helped people rebuild their houses and their lives," Laible said. "There was a lesson in that irony - that it's not about what you can get, it's about what you can give - that's what makes you rich."