By Angeljean Chiaramida
---- — SALISBURY — This year, Stacey Beaulieu’s best gift didn’t come from a store, wrapped with pretty paper and bows.
Some time before the holiday, the Salisbury resident and aide at Triton Regional High School realized news stories on Hurricane Sandy’s devastation may have been waning, but the assistance for those whose lives and homes were crushed by the storm was still very much needed.
“I just Googled, ‘How can I help with Hurricane Sandy relief?’ from my iPhone,” Beaulieu said. “A bunch of things popped up.”
Along with articles on the catastrophe that destroyed the homes and businesses of tens of thousands along the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut coastlines, there was the website of NECHAMA. The Minnesota-based, Jewish nonprofit named for the Hebrew word for comfort has been providing disaster relief to the needy, regardless of religious affiliation, since 1996.
Beaulieu submitted her application as a volunteer, offering to go down to the disaster zone during Christmas school vacation. Then she called her father, Salisbury Selectman Don Beaulieu, and asked for the kind of gift she’d never before requested.
“She asked me not to buy her anything,” Don Beaulieu said. “She said she wanted to go help the people whose homes were devastated by Hurricane Sandy. She said she had the time to go down, but didn’t have the money to cover the trip’s possible expenses.”
So, Don Beaulieu agreed to spend what he would have spent on a gift to send his daughter and her 18-year-old cousin, Dylan McCloy, a senior at Newburyport High School, to New York.
“I was very excited,” she said. “I was brought up to treat other people the way I’d want to be treated. If I was in that circumstance, I’d want someone to help me.”
Don Beaulieu said not only was he proud of his daughter’s generous heart, but it was nice to hear that she actually listened to what he and her mother had taught her as she was growing up.
But Beaulieu still needed to get word from NECHAMA that her offer to help was accepted. That call came about 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve when she was notified she was needed the day after Christmas in New York.
By 6:45 a.m. on Dec. 26, while many were still getting over the hustle and bustle of the holiday, Beaulieu and her cousin were driving to New York. Just before 11 a.m., they reached the home they would work on in Long Beach, Long Island, which was hit hard by the super storm.
“You drive over a bridge to get to Long Beach,” Beaulieu said. “Before we cross it, Dylan and I were looking around and it didn’t look so bad. But when we crossed the bridge, we could see all the debris in front of almost every house. There were piles everywhere.”
The home they were assigned to was not far from water on three sides, she said. When Sandy roared through, bringing enormous storm surges, the waters rose, flooding the home’s interior. They worked with other NECHAMA volunteers to remove all the soaked areas from the two-bedroom home she believed belonged to an elderly resident.
“All the rugs and floors and appliances had to come out,” Beaulieu said. “And we were to tear out the lower 4 feet of sheetrock on all the walls.”
Then everything had to be carted outside and piled along the sidewalk, where tons of debris from other homes rested.
“We worked with another man and his 12-year-old son who lived about 10 minutes away,” she said. “He had a basement, which was where the water flooded. The home where we were working didn’t have a basement, so the water flooded the house.
“He said he came to help because he was lucky. He said he only lost power for 10 days and was without water for two weeks. And he thought he was lucky.”
During the two days she and McCloy were there, Beaulieu said she saw firsthand the evidence of the devastation that warranted $23 million in disaster relief aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency,
“We weren’t the only ones in jeans and work boots covered in grime,” she said. “We saw contractors everywhere.”
Beaulieu couldn’t speak highly enough about her young cousin, the son of Kathy and Jay McCloy of Newburyport.
“Dylan was awesome,” she said. “We gave him a sledgehammer and he got down under the floor. He was pounding away getting up the floorboards.”
NECHAMA arranged for Beaulieu and McCloy to stay at the fire station in Baldwin, N.Y.
“It was pretty cool; about seven people from the organization were staying there,” she said, adding that the volunteer firefighters there responded to three fires during their stay.
When their assignment was over, Beaulieu and McCloy left their work piled up on the sidewalk outside the small two-bedroom home and headed home. But their experience wasn’t complete, she said. There was more to learn.
Because of the traffic, they were routed home via Interstate 84 in Connecticut, and drove through Newtown, the site of the horrible pre-Christmas school massacre that took 27 lives, including 20 first-graders.
“This was a trip that put everything into perspective,” Beaulieu said. “You realized that life can change on a dime and that you should live your life well and do what you can to help others. I don’t think it’s very remarkable that we did what we did. We just took two days to help some people and it was a great experience I would gladly do again.
“You know, it wasn’t lost on me that this Christmas, I helped clean up after Hurricane Sandy and last Christmas, I was on a beach in Aruba,” Beaulieu said. “I realized I should do this more often because of all the blessings I have.”
NECHAMA work is rooted in the Jewish value of Tikkum Olam, Hebrew for repairing the world through acts of kindness. The organization responds with disaster relief all over the U.S. For more on its efforts, visit www.nechama.org.