By John Burton
HIGHLANDS – While the trip from their Maryland home to Highlands was a long one, it was something Colin and Kristen Renick wanted to do, felt compelled to do.
“Once we began seeing the pictures, we knew we had to do something,” said Kristen as she and others got off a school bus that had arrived from their homes in Severna Park, Md. The group came to offer assistance to the people who were attempting to clean up and rebound after the damage caused by Super Storm Sandy.
Kristen and about 30 of her neighbors, students from their local high school and others piled onto a school bus and traveled more than four hours to Highlands last Saturday.
Kristen grew up in Rumson, where her family still resides, and Colin, who followed in his truck, was raised in Middletown, where he still has family. While the draw to the area remains strong, both said their motivation to come here was marked by the tremendous damage the storm inflicted.
Sandy’s effects were felt in Maryland, said the Renicks, who had lost power for a few days. Without TV or access to computers they weren’t fully aware of the magnitude of what happened to this part of New Jersey until somewhat later.
After the storm, they decided to collect needed items and bring them to New Jersey. But when they got here, Kristen said she wasn’t prepared for what she saw.
“When you see the news and see pictures it doesn’t do it justice,” she said. “It’s so much worse.”
When they arrived they realized they needed to do more than just haul donations to New Jersey.
The volunteers who have been on-site since the storm ended “are completely exhausted,” Kristen said. “Of course they need supplies, but they need help. They need a break.”
With that in mind they reached out to their area, “and people stepped up and offered,” Colin said, noting the volunteers, by and large, have no connection to the area, other than a desire to help those in need.
Ted Williams, who coaches varsity football and teaches at Severna Park High School, said his involvement came “just from the heart,” after seeing and hearing the effects.
“I try to teach the kids to make a difference in people’s lives,” and this was a way of putting that lesson into practice, he said.
Bob Thomas, a neighbor of the Renicks, has some connection to New Jersey. His brother lives in Toms River and works as the assistant principal at Toms River North High School. “They got hit pretty heavy too,” he said of Toms River, but not nearly as hard as what he saw in this portion of Monmouth County.
The Maryland group was assigned to help clean up the area of Paradise Trailer Park, off Shore Drive overlooking Sandy Hook Bay. Thomas surveyed the damage to the trailer park area, with debris strewn about and many of the trailer doors with the orange “condemned” sticker plastered on them.
When their bus arrived in the area, Kristen handed out masks and advised the volunteers not to enter the homes, “even if they ask,” meaning the residents. This was for the volunteers’ safety, given the possible instability of the structures as well as potential contaminants.
“If you’re uncomfortable doing something, don’t do it,” she said.
“This is very sad. It’s very shocking,” Thomas said. “It’s one thing to see it on the news, it’s another thing to come here and see it firsthand.”
“It looks like a tornado ripped through here,” Colin said as he looked around the trailer park.
As the group got on with its work, Colin looked around at the growing piles of debris. “Everybody will rebuild,” he said with a thoughtful nod, “and make it a good place again.”
“In this destruction there is hope and humanity,” Kristen agreed. “These are good people.”
Colin, who is a member of the Capitol Police in Washington, D.C., said his union was organizing officers to come in the near future to help with the work.
Kristen and he also plan to return soon to offer help again.
This was just one group of scores of volunteers on hand on Saturday, ready to work. Others were delivering truckloads of supplies and tools for volunteers, and still others were serving coffee and food for the long day of work.
“It just broke our hearts to see what happened here,” said Cary Chevat of Montclair who came with about 60 others to offer a helping hand.