By Mary Ann Bourbeau
The United Methodist Church building in Highlands has a new lease on life.
After the church was closed several years ago, the building’s fate was up in the air. It was leased out for a while but then the 65-year-old structure was flooded by Super Storm Sandy.
Now the brick church on Bay Avenue has been converted into a space to house volunteers from around the country who come to help rebuild homes damaged by the horrific October storm.
It is not the only church in the area to be used to house volunteers helping those in the area recover from Sandy. The First Presbyterian Church of Red Bank also was renovated to host up to 20 people.
In Highlands, the leaders of the Greater New Jersey United Methodist Church realized after the storm that area residents were going to need both short-term and long-term help. Under the leadership of Bishop John Schol, they started an independent, nonprofit organization called A Future with Hope, with the goal of rebuilding 500 homes over five years. The focus would be to help those who are elderly, disabled and low income. The organization is now based out of the Highlands church.
“Even in the midst of the most challenging times, there is a hopeful future for us, and by working together we can realize those hopes,” Schol said. “A Future with Hope will be around for the long haul, a long-term effort by the United Methodist Church in New Jersey to focus on relief, recovery and mission work.”
A Future with Hope, a partner with United Methodist Committee on Relief, has received significant funding from the Robin Hood Foundation, the American Red Cross and members of the United Methodist Church.
Since it began rebuilding homes in March, the organization has had the help of nearly 1,000 volunteers from 16 states. Most come for a week and stay in one of 10 hosting sites, the largest of which is the Highlands church that opened its doors July 15 and can host up to 100 people at a time.
Recently, volunteers from Houston, Texas, stayed in the repurposed church, which now has a kitchen and showers. While men sleep on cots in the sanctuary, women’s cots are in the basement. They worked at a site in Keyport, while another group from St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in North Canton, Ohio, helped rebuild a home in Highlands. Those volunteers, who were staying in a Lacey Township church, worked with a group from Bridgewater at the one-story home that had to be gutted after taking on more than 3 feet of water. Some were skilled in areas such as carpentry; others, including high school students, learned how to Sheetrock, spackle and paint.
“Jesus told us to help people,” said the Rev. Erwin Urschitz of Ohio. “We’ve been to help those affected by Katrina five times. We go where the need is, one home at a time, one family at a time, if that’s all you can do. We’re really glad to be helping our brothers and sisters, wherever they might be. We have to do something. We can’t just pray for them.
We have to put our boots physically on the ground.”
Case managers for A Future with Hope take applications from those in need. Currently, there are 11 homes under construction.
Morgan Lalevee, 18, of Bridgewater, volunteered her time at the home in Highlands, learning to spackle and sand walls. She was happy to donate her time, especially after meeting the homeowner.
“This house has been in her family for 80 years and she didn’t want to give it up,” Lalevee said. “Her face lit up when she saw how much we got done.”
Her clothes and face covered with specks of spackle, Lalevee said she was having fun working on the home.
“I enjoy helping people,” she said. “I don’t look at it like I’m giving up my summer. I’m using my time in a better way.”
The volunteers, who arrive on Sundays and bring their own bedding to the host church, have an orientation and safety lesson on Mondays. They then receive their assignments based on need and skill level. A Future with Hope provides them with one meal during the week. Often members of the groups go out and spend money in the community where they are helping, offering another plus for the hard-hit town.
“We’re very pleased that (the church building) was transformed to serve the community,” said Beverly Schol, regional manager for A Future with Hope.
In Red Bank, the First Presbyterian Church at Tower Hill has also been renovated to accommodate volunteers.
“Many of our congregation’s members were affected by Sandy and as a church we needed to respond,” said Sue Elam of Oceanport, chairwoman of the church’s storm recovery team.
The volunteers receive their assignments from Gateway Church in Union Beach. During a recent week, 300 people from around the country went there to help. A group from Missouri stayed at Tower Hill while they worked on a home in Keansburg.
“We’ve discovered some people have been living in their damaged homes because they have no place else to go,” Elam said. “For people to help them find a path forward has been emotionally uplifting to the homeowners – and it’s personally rewarding for the people who come in to help.”
The Red Bank church will only be available to groups in the summer because the space is used as a nursery school during the school year. But Elam expects the church to host volunteers again next year.
“So many people have been affected,” she said. “It’s going to be a long road getting people back in their homes.”
Additional information about A Future with Hope is available by visiting www.gnjumc.org or calling 732-359-1012.