Zephyrhills family takes kindness to great lengths
By B.C. Manion
When Elenya Hulbert heard the news that Superstorm Sandy was barreling toward her native New Jersey, she worried about family and friends who were in the storm’s path.
When she saw news reports of the devastation, she knew — on a deeper, more personal level than many — what they had lost.
“Immediately, I just sensed we’ve got to do something to help. God just put a burden on my heart to reach out and help,” said Elenya, who grew up in Cliffwood Beach, N.J. and later lived in Union Beach.
“I figured we could at least collect supplies, some clothing, because we had seen that some people had lost everything,” Elenya said. She added, “Our intention initially was just to pull a small U-Haul behind our vehicle. … We put out this notice to the community to help us gather supplies.”
Tina Root — a sign store in town — donated signage to help them solicit contributions for storm victims.
They also put out the word that they were collecting supplies at New Walk Church, where they are members.
There was an outpouring of support, Elenya said, adding that they received all kinds of donations.
Among the items they collected include a truck full of wheelchairs and walkers, loads of food, diapers, cleaning supplies and lots of clothing.
“You name it, we received it,” Elenya said. “We realized that that small pull-along U-Haul was not going to be adequate, so we started looking into renting a larger truck.”
People also started chipping in money to help cover the family’s travel expenses.
“We wound up raising $1,900 in donations. That paid for the truck. It paid for the hotel. It paid for our whole entire trip,” said Elenya, who made the trek with her husband, Matt, their sons, Austin and Kyle, and Matt’s brother, Alex, who took time off from work to drive the 16-foot truck, while the family trailed behind in their white Yukon.
They left on the Sunday after Sandy hit and spent 19 hours on the road.
The Hulberts stayed with Elenya’s friends, Dee McCallum and her family, in Lacey Township, N.J.
When they arrived in New Jersey, they went to help a woman in Toms River who Elenya’s brother knew. He’d heard that the woman’s house had flooded.
“All of her belongings were out on the street,” Elenya said. “We pulled up with a 16-foot truck and we said, ‘What do you need? We’ll give it to you right now.’”
Elenya said the woman had to stay in the house because she had nowhere else to go.
“We gave her furniture. A bed. She took blankets. She took clothing,” Elenya said.
She also was glad to get pet food to feed the dogs that she fosters.
“She was in tears,” Elenya said.
Next door, the Hulberts noticed that a neighbor had wet towels hanging over the fence.
“We asked him if needed anything off of the truck. He said, ‘Well, if you have any towels, that would be great.’ So, we gave him bags of towels to be able to sop up the water in his house,” Elenya said.
Their next stop was at the Silverton Firehouse in Toms River, which was serving as a distribution point to help Sandy victims.
“At least 30 of their volunteer firemen had lost their homes,” Elenya said. “… We distributed about a third of the truck to them.”
The following day they were in the Union Beach area, where Elenya’s niece works at a deli.
“One of her co-workers had lost everything,” Elenya said. “She had to swim to leave her house.”
Union Beach was the area they saw that was hit the hardest.
“I’ve never been in a war zone before, but basically that’s what it (Union Beach) looked like,” Matt said. There were “houses all over the place. Rubble. Just pure destruction. … It’s where the ocean comes into the bay. From where the water is normally to where the water was, there had to have been at least a 20-foot wall of water that hit the seawall and then sent 10 or plus feet over the seawall.”
Austin, 9, added, “All I saw was buildings destroyed.”
They were able to give the woman clothing for her 2-year-old son, blankets and sweatshirts.
“This was the town where 200 homes, so far, have been condemned,” Elenya said. “It was just extreme damage every single street. It was a tent city. Their belongings, their flooring, their drywall, their furniture, their clothes just piled. Street after street.”
Kyle, 11, added, “It was like I was in a nightmare, and I just couldn’t wake up. It made me feel very sad.”
It was freezing when the family arrived at a fire department that was accepting donations, Elenya said.
She recalled one of the most poignant moments was when the family provided items for a woman who had twin babies.
“We had a twin stroller that someone had donated. We also had two car seats. We gave her diapers, wipes, clothing,” said Elenya, who got off the truck to help the woman carry the items.
“I’m thinking, ‘Where is she going to take me? We’re going to a car? Where are we going?” Elenya said.
The woman stopped on the sidewalk and began to cry. She had forgotten that her home was gone, Elenya said. So, they brought the items back to the truck and a volunteer agreed to store them until the woman had a place to go.
The storm victims had different ways of coping, Elenya said.
Some had their heads bowed, in despair. Others tried to lift each other’s spirits.
In one tent, a woman was playing a guitar, leading a sing-along.
“It was cool to see the victims coming together as a community and helping one another, and giving the other person supplies that didn’t have it who needed it,” Kyle said.
The last stop the Hulberts made was at the Toms River Restore the Shore Donation Drop-off, Elenya said.
“The day before they’d have 500 people through,” Matt said.
The Hulberts said they’ll never forget the devastation they saw, or the feelings they experienced while helping people in New Jersey.
“I’m still tearing up over it,” Elenya said.
“It blessed us, to be part of that. To see people’s appreciation,” she added.
She said it also reminded her, “There’s hope through all of this, no matter what has happened.”
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