Gina Cavallo lives in West Orange, New Jersey. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, she used her background in healthcare to help displaced homeowners in Ortley Beach and Lavallette. Seeing the degree of need, she founded the Paying It Forward Foundation, a grassroots initiative to provide relief assistance to those affected by the storm. Over the past two years, Paying It Forward has helped numerous families affected by Sandy to restore their homes and rebuild their lives. In this narrative, Gina discusses her work on the shore and the challenges of the rebuilding process.
What is your occupation?
I’m the founder of the Paying it Forward Foundation, the foundation came about from Hurricane Sandy. We do everything to help people that’s disaster related or non-disaster related, anyone that’s going through a crisis we help. My background is in health care, but at the time of the storm I was not working. Although I was looking for work, the job market was really difficult, and when I saw the storm happened, I was watching and I couldn’t just sit back and not do anything. So I started volunteering. I thought I was gonna do it for maybe a few weeks or a month, and it just evolved. I didn’t have an organization at the time, my background was health care, a human resources director in a health care facility. So, that was my background, not anymore.
Did the hurricane affect you as a homeowner?
Yes, we didn’t have power for ten days. It didn’t affect us nearly as much as it affected the people down the island but we had no power. So, we basically were on the gas lines and nothing really eventful was going on except that everybody was losing their food and their electric, and I just took food and I started cooking and I started distributing it to the neighbors and seniors and then after that, I came down here and was going out and helping in shelters. And I was basically going into the island once they opened up the island for the homeowners. But our home wasn’t destroyed, or there wasn’t major devastation like there was to the homeowners down here.
How did you get involved in the relief effort?
After Hurricane Sandy happened, I decided to come down here and to start to help. So, I stayed at shelters, and because I had my health care background I stayed and I wanted to help anybody that was displaced and that included people with special needs, or the elderly.
While people were in shelters it was probably the mid part of November, then they started opening up the island to the homeowners, and at that point I went into the island with some other volunteers and we just started helping people gut their homes and we were just walking the street, going from home to home. That’s when everybody’s belongings and everybody’s life was just in the street. Well everything in their homes were on the curb outside, and there was no strategic way that we were going this except just going from one house to the next, everybody needed help. So that was really hard. I was traveling back and forth to West Orange at the time, so me and other volunteers just kept meeting every day. We just kept doing this because it was like an ongoing project that happened.
I was doing this in Ortley and Seaside and Lavallette then put together this project, it’s called Lavallette Project Connect and they were trying to have a place for homeowners to go to because everybody was just in panic and devastated and overwhelmed and they didn’t know what to do, where to get help. There was no electric, the communication was minimal so Lavallette Project put together this website for people to go to, and it was people to go to for help, and it was also for volunteers to go to. They realized that now they needed somebody to coordinate and take over this project so I offered to help them with this, and it became my project.
I was involved in this project, connecting all the homeowners that were asking for help, and all the volunteers were looking to help. And next thing you know there were other areas on the island- Ortley, Seaside, areas like Bayville, Chadwick, Lavallette- they were finding out about this so they were all starting to go on this site. Every day, it was beyond overwhelming. I was like drowning in this thing, and it was just myself, volunteers, and corporations looking to help, and all these homeowners looking for help. I was like okay, just get the volunteers and connect them with the homeowners.
Now I was starting to say okay, tomorrow we’re gonna be there and we’re gonna help you, you need your house gutted, okay we will be there, you needed two and half, three and a half, four and a half feet of sand that’s there, okay we will get it out. Homeowners couldn’t get in or out of their house; they were buried in sand so we were doing everything, no matter what it was. Early on, we were not focusing on just elderly and people with special needs. Everybody needed help.
How did Paying it Forward Foundation come to be?
One day I was in Lavallette, and I was helping this homeowner, and him and his wife, whom were like devastated and beside themselves and they were in tears. His name is Joe Lupo, and his wife Mary Anne. And he said, “Let me donate something to your organization.” Organization? I says we don’t have an organization. He said “You have to promise me, please come and see me when you can. Will you promise to come and see me?” I says I promise, I didn’t know how, but I promised. I went to visit him one day, and he said to me, “I want to do something for you, you won’t take any money, so I want you to think of a name, because I want to open up an organization for you.” And the only name I could think of was Paying it Forward because he was devastated, he was hurting, and I never met anybody in my life that was hurting and devastated and going through bad times that wanted to do for somebody else. I really never met anybody like that. Usually people that are going through a difficult time, they’re just concerned and you know, trying to get out of their own hole. But, this man really wanted to give to someone else while they were hurting, so that’s where Paying it Forward Foundation came from.
The foundation has been growing and evolving since, I make many trips down here through the course of the week. My primary focus is Ocean County, although I will help homeowners outside of Ocean Country. It doesn’t have to be related to a disaster. Part of my missions are those with disabilities, people with special needs, the veterans, the elderly, if they weren’t affected by a disaster but they’re going through a crisis, I will help them. I also provide free medical equipment for those that need it: power scooters, we’ve built ramps, canes, hospital beds, wheelchairs we provide to anyone who needs it and the good thing about, with our organization is that we don’t have many rules. If someone honestly needs help, we give it. We’ve been getting a lot of homeowners back home. We’ve gutted hundreds and hundreds of homes, and we have rebuilt maybe about a half a dozen, which is pretty good for being a small foundation.
What type of rebuilding has Paying it Forward done?
Right now, someone from the township had reached out to our foundation, and asked if we would help rebuild the American Legion in Seaside Heights. The American Legion was pretty much destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, and the building was sitting for a whole year, and there wasn’t any help. So we went and looked at it, and I committed to helping to bring the American Legion back together and restoring it. So, Paying it Forward Foundation has spearheaded the project and this building is huge. It’s probably one of the biggest jobs that we have committed to, and we’re happy to say that on Veteran’s Day, this Veteran’s Day, we’re gonna be able to celebrate and welcome the Veterans back home.
We fixed the monument that was not in good condition at all because of the storm, so we had repaired that and it’s gonna be nice, so Veteran’s Day we’re gonna be celebrating and honoring our veterans and also thanking the volunteers that joined in with Paying it Forward to help with this project.
How has rebuilding gone so far? What other organizations have you seen within the community?
I have to say that our organization has been making a difference but it hasn’t just been us. There has not been one entity, one volunteer. We’ve all been a piece of it. Seton Hall Prep up in West Orange, they have been working with my foundation since the beginning. They’re down here almost every week helping and volunteering to help the homeowners, whatever we need to do. McGuire Air Force Base, they’re down here all the time with our foundation helping Team Rubicon, Sandy Weekday Warriors, Bucket Brigade, We Are Team Jersey. So many different organizations that have been grass roots. Two other organizations that have been doing incredible work out there along with us have been Good Samaritan’s Purse and Habitat for Humanity. And then you have AmeriCorps, that’s been helping with Hurricane Resource Center, and People’s Pantry. They’re on Fischer Boulevard in Toms River, they’ve been helping the community, and they’ve been doing an enormous amount of work. But then there’s organizations that have been collecting all the money, and there’s organizations that have been out there like, shoveling sand, gutting homes, helping people sheetrock, helping people paint, restore lives and restore homes, and bringing hope and encouragement to the homeowners. There’s other groups now that are starting to come in, the ones that have the money with long term care, a long term recovery committee, United Way, and Long-Term Care, and these other different bigger organizations. But the problem is that, as they’re vetting homeowners, now, they have all the money. Our groups don’t have the money that they have, but they’re having a difficult time helping the homeowners because they have a criteria, they have a vetting process, so you have to meet their criteria in order to get their help. So, if you’re making not enough here or too much there, you’re out of the box. I’m hoping that they will lower their criteria so homeowners can get help.
It’s just amazing because with just a pair of hands and a giving heart, and no money, it’s amazing that as a community we come together and you can actually see a home being rebuilt. And you’re just having faith and confidence knowing you’re gonna help this person. And it happens, because then people start coming and they wanna help, and they wanna give.
How do go about choosing who you can help?
The sad part of this whole thing is that a lot of people feel that second- home owner shouldn’t get any help. They think it’s, you know they must be wealthy, it’s their second home, it’s their sun and fun home, and that’s not the case. A lot of these homeowners depend on it for their income to sustain them to keep their other home. Or there’s stories behind those homes. There’s people that have children with disabilities that rely on that home. Or it’s homes that were given to them from their family, it went down from generation to generation. Or it’s a home that they worked and sweated their whole entire life, and it’s like, why shouldn’t they be counted for?
For me, I understand primary home owners are the primary, they’re the first ones, but when you think about it, primary homeowners pay full taxes, but so do secondary homeowners. So second-home owners are still paying for everything, they’re paying for taxes, they’re paying water, they’re paying for electric, they’re paying for everything. So there should be something out there for the second- home owner so, until they can fix that problem, we’re there to help whoever we can help. Of course, now we had to prioritize, and we can’t help everybody obviously, so we do have to say okay, where’s the greatest need?
The elderly’s gonna come up on top, the veterans will take top, and anybody with special needs. And it doesn’t mean we won’t help other people, but you know, we still have to prioritize because we just can’t save the world, even though we wish we could.
I think a lot of people, whether they saw it on the TV or first hand, were all touched by what happened. Was there one certain trigger that made you want to make such a big difference?
I would say my big trigger was the relationships that we developed with the homeowners, and seeing the despair and the hopelessness in them. There are homeowners still waiting, they’re still waiting for insurance money, they’re still fighting. Fighting for their homes, to get their home back, get something back that they worked their whole life for. So, the trigger was, just giving people hope again, act of kindness. I tell them, when we’re done, when we do for you, just do something kind for somebody else. That’s paying it forward. I mean, really paying it forward anytime. Even if you’re not in a disaster. Sometime during the course of the day, when you wake up in the morning to when you go to bed at night, we are given many, many opportunities to show an act of kindness to someone else. The trigger is when you’re out there, versus watching it from the TV, it’s very different. It’s very quiet, even with the boardwalk. I understand how they needed the boardwalk and they needed to get it back up and running, it brings in the money. But I have mixed feelings about it. You’re fixing the boardwalk, and that’s great, but it’s like putting the cart before the horse. Where are the people gonna sleep at night? They don’t have their homes to go to. We take care of other countries, we need to take care of our own battle. I’m not saying it’s not nice to help other countries, but we need to help our own. I feel really strong about that. We’re in this, we’re committed, and it’s a mission that I know our foundation isn’t walking away from, so every little bit helps. Even so we’re just a little piece of the puzzle.
What opinions do you have on how the government and other organizations response to the Hurricane?
I feel that they have responded accordingly to being connected with what’s been going on. Governor Christie did a very good job. But he has been very involved, so I can’t say anything really negative. The only thing I would do differently, would be getting over to the White House, I don’t think that they had much support there. Like I said, the magnitude of this storm was new for everyone, so I think considering, everybody pulled together as best as they knew how. The only negative area that I’d like to see change is one, the homeowners that they loosen up with the criteria. And the second would be the second-home owners, they should be entitled to something. They’re paying taxes just like the primary homeowners, so they should be getting help. I hear that Habitat for Humanity is going to start considering helping secondary homeowners. I don’t know if there’s much validity to that, but I heard from a reliable source that they do wanna help other people.
What has the Hurricane taught you?
Just not taking anything or anyone for granted. The relationships that we have developed, that I have developed, as a result of Sandy, has been incredible. We’ve had hundreds of homeowners become like family, very valuable relationships that have been formed. It’s just something never to forget, and you can’t forget it. It’s even difficult sometimes to get into that norm, your normal life before Sandy, even though we weren’t personally directly affected by it. It’s almost like, knowing that other people are still displaced, or other people have totally lost everything, it doesn’t give you a great feeling when you’re going to sleep at night in your home, there’s so many people that still need help. But of course we’re just totally thankful for the people that we have helped, but we’re hard on ourselves, and we’re looking at the cup half empty instead of half full because it’s just too great to be laid back about it. So, like everything, this too shall pass. We never know when the next storm’s gonna be. There will be another disaster, there will be another storm, and there will be another crisis. So, we have to keep up with things, we have to be prepared.
Interviewed by Christiana Tyra and Diane DeLuca
Edited by Ashley Fuzak
Toms River, New Jersey
Recorded November 2, 2013