- Associated Press - Monday, October 26, 2015

BELMAR, N.J. (AP) - Remember the final scene in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” when the whole town came together with donations large and small to help save George Bailey?

Something similar has happened in this New Jersey shore town, where a fundraising drive to help two survivors of Superstorm Sandy get back into their damaged homes drew support from across the country.

Help ranged from a $2 check from Chicago to donations of $15,000 from contractors - most of them from people who didn’t know the recipients. More than $240,000 in cash and materials was raised from as far away as California and Texas.

The shore community of Belmar and The Saint Vincent De Paul Society of St. Rose, a Roman Catholic church in town, started the “Home By Summer” campaign in February to raise money to help Krista Sperber and Teresa Keefe make repairs so they could move back in by June. That deadline came and went, but both are now back in their homes just before Sandy’s third anniversary Thursday.

“My babies now have a place - their safe haven,” Keefe said at a news conference in front of her newly rebuilt and elevated house two blocks from a river that inundated her neighborhood during the Oct. 29, 2012, storm. “Family dinners are amazing, and everyone has a place to lay their heads and sleep soundly, and for that, we thank you.”

Her 11-year-old son, Shaun, could barely hide his joy at being home, running around the freshly paved driveway with his younger sister.

“We have our house back,” he said. “Family time is back, and we are enjoying every bit of that. So thank you.”

Keefe lived with relatives in Lakewood, about 30 minutes inland. She had to make two-hour-long round trips each day to drive her kids Shayla, 15, Shaun, and Alyssa, 10, to school in Belmar so they could maintain links to friends and teachers.

Sperber, her husband, Mike Irwin, and their children, Jack Held, 14, and Maisie Held, 12, have moved six times since Sandy. She estimated she got about $70,000 in cash assistance from the program. She just got the electricity turned back on in her house Thursday and never imagined her family would be out of their home for three years.

“A contractor told us this would be a year-and-a-half to two-year process,” she said. “We laughed. We said, ‘Come on. Stop. We have insurance, we get paid, we rebuild, end of story.’ Well, the story wound up being a lot longer than anyone anticipated.”

Both families said they had to fight with insurers and endure long delays with New Jersey’s main rebuilding grant program for three years - and even then they weren’t able to rebuild without help from the fundraising drive.

“We had a woman from Evanston, Illinois, who wrote a check for $5,000, who had never been to Belmar, never been to the Jersey shore, never even been in New Jersey,” Belmar Mayor Matt Doherty said. “She just wanted to help. It speaks volumes to the generosity of Americans. We think we’re all caught up in division and conflict, but when Americans hear about other Americans in need, they’re extremely generous.”


Wayne Parry can be reached at https://twitter.com/WayneParryAC

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