“Mr. Frick, we are NOT HOMELESS!”
The voice on the other end of the phone was incredibly hurt and angry; no… insulted. The day before, I had her daughter filling out paperwork to provide assistance since the family was displaced after Hurricane Sandy. Unfortunately there is no “displaced” category on the forms, thus the students had to be classified as the gut-punch category of homeless. After explaining what was done, and why it was done, tears were shed on the mom’s end of the line and she understood what happened. After hanging up, no tears were shed on my end; I had become numb. It had already been 17 days since Sandy hit.
My home, my beloved Jersey Shore, was torn apart. Prior to October 29, the worst damage done to our area was from the MTV show of the same name. A storm named Sandy changed everything.
Middletown public schools, where I have been a school counselor for the past two years, were closed for two weeks. I used the time to get my family squared away: we were without power for 14 days; my daughters considered it an adventure for a while as their school was also closed for the same time frame.
My wife and I also drove the two miles to the Shore of our present and of our youth: Spring Lake and Belmar, where so many memories that had been made across our lives individually and as a couple, were gone. Boardwalks where we had walked and watched the water prior to our marriage, and where I ran as an alternative to the treadmill were reduced to sticks coming out of 20-foot high piles of sand removed by the townships. Beach playgrounds that quashed sibling squabbles for my girls were now across the street, impaling the windows of restaurants and shops. We saw sections of the boardwalk, whole sections, on the front lawns of homes more than a half-mile from the beach, with no possible explanation of how they got there. My six-year-old capsulized it: “Daddy, our beach is gone. But we’re from New Jersey. It’ll be back, but different.”
During this time, my home was operating on a generator. I was shocked to find that I could access my WIFI signal by plugging that into the generator; my computer became a lifeline for me. As we got to a point at home where we merely needed power, I took to working on my letters of recommendation for students applying early. I had printed and brought home the hard copies of transcripts and brag sheets as an afterthought before leaving work on October 26, and it turned out to be a happy mistake. I worked on letters, uploading them to Naviance and sending them out electronically for those students ready to go. I added an addendum, explaining the situation to the colleges and asking for patience. NACAC was tremendous in encouraging and communicating deadline extensions, and I was able to get that out to my students through email and through my Twitter account. It helped to establish some semblance of a routine for me, and I set about servicing my students as I could.
Returning to school was going to be a return to routine. A return to normalcy. Like everything else connected to Sandy, it was a part of the new normal. Students were absent, unaware that the school was opened since they were cut off from communication. Some were absent so they could help with continuing clean-up. Some were charged with watching the house to protect from looters. During my first week back, I have had more families in my office crying and talking. “How’d you make out in the storm?” was the new greeting in the area and the answers varied. We set about using word of mouth and self-disclosure to find out who was without supplies, who still didn’t have power and who was now living elsewhere. Students were living in houses that were uninhabitable, in cars, in hotels, and in motor homes parked in driveways. When the kids were called down, and we asked what they needed, the answer was consistent: “there are other people who need it more than I do.” We all wanted to scream: “your house is in the middle of the next street! No one needs it more than you!”
Supplies were needed and canned food donated. After delivering cleaning supplies to one student’s home in the hardest hit part of town, I was reminded of what I already knew. Pictures and video on the news can’t tell the story. I stepped out of my car and all my senses were awakened. I saw lives out on the curbsides, I heard crying and screaming as well as barking and meowing from the pets looking for their owners. I didn’t touch anything out of respect. The smell was a mix of mold, natural gas and smoke. I had smelled it two days before as I helped clean out a home in Belmar right on the water, and I swore I never wanted to smell that again.
Each day, new students who are displaced emerge, and more supplies are given out. I reached out to my friends and colleagues on the college side of the desk and the outpouring has been fantastic. The swag we are given when reps visit campus now became necessary clothing for our students. The sling backpacks have been received as more precious than gemstones by those who lost school supplies. Pens, pencils and notebooks have been donated and are being used; sweatshirts and sweatpants are being given out and worn; colleges students didn’t even know existed are suddenly plastered across their chests. T-shirts are being given out to students in our PE classes so students can dress for gym.
This has easily been the most mentally exhausting week of my life. Nothing could have prepared me for it, and I hope to never have to deal with this again. College admission has taken a back seat in this time, but the admission community has come to the forefront in their help and aid. I always explain that this is a business of relationships, and I am thrilled to have built these relationships over my 12 years in this industry. While I can massage an application with a rep I know well, these people, these friends, have clothed my students… my kids. Donations are still coming in, and they are still needed. Nothing will go to waste.
I know the damage in New York—particularly Long Island and Staten Island—is also horrible. The entire region got pounded. Here’s what I know: the Jersey Shore will be back. From Keansburg and Sandy Hook to the barrier islands, my beloved Belmar and Spring Lake to Atlantic City, the rebuilding is already beginning. People across the country are starting to understand the phrase "Jersey Strong," and we are all committed that Memorial Day weekend will again be an event at the shore—a grand re-opening. By that time, my students will not be back to normal. Many will still not be in their houses and many more will be in completely different homes. The college admission process will be done and many students will suddenly change their goals and paths based on the family living conditions. Sandy took a lot from us, but she can’t take our spirit!