Denise Gavala stands on the deck outside her parents’ Ortley Beach home and looks out over an audience of friends, family, and neighbors. Raising her hands over her head, she shouts, “Everyone here, welcome to our home!”
After months of repairs with the help of a small army of volunteers, Audrey and Mickey Gavala are among the lucky homeowners who can now sleep in their own beds. Their home was one of the thousands of homes damaged along the New Jersey coastline during Superstorm Sandy, which struck Oct 29, 2012.
“One by one, volunteers started coming in from all over, from California, Virginia, Boston, New Jersey,” said Denise Gavala, who works in fundraising at Rutgers University. “Over 100 volunteers, piece by piece, put this house back together.”
The volunteer effort was coordinated by an organization called Paying It Forward.
Last week, the Gavalas celebrated their return and honored the volunteers who helped them with a cookout. It featured with the usual cake, hotdogs, and sandwiches.
However, the celebration also included bagpipes, nearly a dozen members of Marine Corps League, and a visit from the mayor – a testament of the enthusiasm of shore communities to welcome their residents back home.
The Gavalas have owned their home for over 50 years and are now in their 70s. Mickey is confined to a wheelchair after a stroke. The couple spent the winter in Florida while Denise took charge of repairs. By the time they returned home in May, much of the work had been completed.
“The walls were up and … the woodwork was up,” Audrey recalled. “[Denise] says, ‘Well, what do you think?’ and I say, ‘What do I think? It looks just like I left it.'”
Audrey had read newspaper stories about the damage and seen photos of the area, but she said it wasn’t until her second visit to the neighborhood that she truly understood how bad the damage was, how much work was done, and how much there remained to do.
“When I came back on Mothers’ Day, that’s when it hit me,” she said. “Seeing Mantoloking again, going down Bay Boulevard and seeing all the houses in the water. I was really very upset then.”
She also started to notice all the things that weren’t a part of her house anymore. Mickey, a former Marine, had laid the old tile floors and installed the kitchen cabinets himself.
“It just seemed like it wasn’t our house anymore,” she said. “It wasn’t something that we did from scratch.”
Now, the Gavalas have been fully moved in and living in the house for little over a week. Family photos once again line the window sills and shelves. A “Sandy Survivor” sign hangs above the bathroom door. Even though the bottom drawers no longer open, Audrey still uses her old dresser.
“As the furniture’s coming back in and the pictures are being hung up on the wall again, I think now I feel more comfortable,” she said.
The Pay It Forward Volunteers built Mickey a new ramp and made the door frames wide enough for his wheelchair.
“Before the walls went up, they wrote little notes all inside the walls, wishing us well,” said Denise, who used all her vacation days repairing the house and hasn’t been to the movies or gotten a pedicure since the storm.
“It was just natural to want to come and help, especially being this is where all my childhood memories and roots are,” said Gina Cavallo, the founder of Paying It Forward, a not-for-profit that was created as a result of Sandy.
Still, homecomings like Gavalas’ are still relatively rare. Denise estimates only 10 percent of their neighbors are currently living in their homes and the area remains a construction zone. For those families, there’s still much work to be done before they, too, can return home.