First Person: Helping Our Jersey Neighbors, Long After Hurricane Sandy Left

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First Person: Helping Our Jersey Neighbors, Long After Hurricane Sandy Left
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Some of the destruction at Ortley Beach, New Jersey, after Hurricane Sandy.

Yahoo News is publishing first-person accounts from Americans who went above and beyond in 2013 to help their local communities after natural disasters and tragedies. Here's one story.

FIRST PERSON | On Oct. 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy struck my home state of New Jersey with vicious force, wiping out entire communities. We spent seven long days without power in our home, but this was nothing compared to the suffering of those near the shore, who, when the water receded, no longer had a home at all.

We had no refrigerator, no gas stations, and no heat. But what I remember most was not the fear or worry; it was the support from our neighbors. We had only lived in Somerset County for two years. We didn't know our neighbors well, yet there they were, knocking on our door to see if we needed anything, since we did not have a generator. One neighbor, Donna, offered us a warm place to sleep. Maureen supplied a recharging station and food. Cindy and Steve let us run an extension cord across the lawn to hook up to their generators, which saved our entire perishable food supply.

When our power was finally restored, we could see the sheer physical destruction on television, the damage caused to the places we knew and loved. We were filled with such a longing to help, but what could we do? We were just one little family -- my husband and I, and our 4-year-old son.

But then I recalled our neighbors, and how quickly they came forward to help us. It made me realize how important it is to help one another in this world, how something small can mean something big to someone else. My friend Lisa had talked about shopping for the hurricane victims, and I thought it was a great idea. Word was that they needed canned goods, non-perishables, blankets, and cleaning supplies. Our first "Relief Shopping" trip (as I had come to call it) was in our own pantry, since some of the stores were still closed or had no power. My son helped me put canned soups, pasta, sponges and cleaning products into bags. We didn't have much, either, but I figured what little I could give was more than what they had at the shore.

"Why are we doing this?" my son asked. It was difficult to explain to someone so young.

Enter Operation Sandy Pants

In the weeks that followed the hurricane, we went on at least seven "Relief Shopping" trips, hitting up Walmart and Target for discounted items -- disinfectant, buckets, mops, soup, granola bars -- whatever we could get our hands on. From November to January, we sought out organizations that were delivering relief items to the shore, since there was limited access to the roads and beaches. Operation Sandy Pants, a group created by Kelley Dameo and based out of Ortley Beach, was one of them. They stationed themselves around the county, collected donations of non-perishables, and brought them to drop-off points for those in need.

"Regardless of the losses endured or the inconveniences placed on people, everybody wanted to do something, anything to help," Dameo told me. "New Jersey is made up of strong, compassionate, and unwavering people who will undoubtedly and relentlessly go out of their way to help one another."

And this was so true. When we dropped off our relief items, we encountered lines of people, smiling faces handing over bags and buckets of new cleaning supplies and food. Scores of volunteers piled toys, games, clothing and furniture inside trailers for delivery. We even saw someone dropping off a baby crib.

Positive changes ahead

I never imagined a hurricane could teach me so much about compassion and respect for our fellow human beings. As a society, we need to remember that we are all in the same boat, so to speak, and we're all human.

In the beginning, my son didn't understand why we were gathering and donating items to strangers. He had asked why. But by our third relief shopping trip, he looked at me and asked, "What do they need?"

Surely, if a 4-year-old can learn the value of charity, we all can.

"I think sometimes we forget that recovery takes a long time, and if people are not directly affected then they go about their lives as if everything is back to normal," Dameo told me, a year after the hurricane. "Meanwhile, many people still suffer, and then ultimately feel forgotten, whether it is a natural disaster, an illness or an accident. I think if we all just try to stay more informed and put ourselves out there a bit more, then we will naturally feel compelled to do more as we see the positive change we can help to create."

In the beginning, when my neighbors (Donna, Maureen, Cindy and Steve, what would I have done without you guys?) came forward to help us so selflessly, it made me question if I would have done the same, had I been in their position. The fact that I was originally unsure, that I was surprised by their offer of help, inspired me to change. Not only did it encourage me to help others affected by the hurricane, but in my everyday life, too.

Now, a year after the hurricane, when I see a need, I try to fill it. Be it fundraisers for shore recovery, animal shelters seeking supplies, toy drives during the holidays, or clothing donations for churches, I will step forward. As a small family on one income, we don't have much, either. But I know we have something, and there's always something we can spare. We help now, not because we have to, but because we can.

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