College spring break often means relaxing on a beach in Cancun, swimming during the day and then hitting the nightlife, but for students participating in an alternative spring break program this year, the days have been filled by hauling boxes, sorting storm relief items and helping victims in Brick.
About 140 volunteers are in Ocean County this week from colleges across the country, including about 10 students from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., who volunteered at the Visitation Relief Center on Mantoloking Road on Tuesday.
"I think it's a wonderful opportunity," said Bethany Pan of Winston-Salem, a freshman at Wake Forest. "It's affecting these people's lives right now, and as we've been on the sites helping out, everyone's been working together as a community."
Matt Mancuso, a Parsippany resident who came back home to New Jersey to help his fellow Garden Staters, said in other parts of the country, the news coverage hasn't told the whole story.
"There was obviously news coverage when it first happened, but since then we haven't heard much," said Mancuso, a senior. "We saw all the damage, especially by the beach, and it takes you back."
"It's amazing that it's been so many months since the hurricane, and we're still seeing so much destruction and so much that still needs to be done," said Erin Hellmann of Frankfurt, Ky., who became interested in Sandy relief after hearing about the storm from relatives in New Jersey and one of her professors at Wake Forest, whose son lived in New York City during the storm.
"I like that it's immediate relief, and we can help right now," she said.
The students' projects are spread around Ocean County, and have ranged from helping out at the Visitation Relief Center to helping residents in need of work on their homes, to restoring dunes and clearing hiking trails, said Candace Linn of Community Collaborations, a group that sponsors alternative spring break service opportunities for students.
"We're trying to meet whatever need the community has," said Linn.
"They're surprised when they see it along the coast," said Linn, of students' reaction to seeing storm damage close-up. "It's very visible. They're surprised to see where it's at right now, because there hasn't been a lot of coverage since the storm. There are so many details they haven't seen in the national media, and they're surprised to see the stuff that's still going on."
Students said they were surprised by how many people were still coming to the Visitation relief center – located in the former Mantoloking Market building – so many months after the storm.
Christie Winters, one of the coordinators of the relief effort, said demand continues to be strong.
"There are so many demands, and so many families coming in and out of the relief center every day," said Winters. "There is everything from finding rental properties, to case management, to money."
But then there are also the basics, like the food and home supplies the relief center is providing.
"We have 1,223 families, so we fill their orders, and it's tough," she said. "They are in such a bad financial state now just trying to get their homes rebuilt – they're trying to buy building supplies – that they're cutting way back on the regular things they buy."
The relief center is now beginning a tool exchange that allows storm survivors to borrow tools to fix their homes, and a community garden is going to be planted once the weather warms up, said Winters.
The presence of the students, who are staying in Toms River this week, has helped tremendously.
"Volunteers are important, because it takes a lot to run a relief center," said Winters. "And a lot of the core volunteers have been here for four months, and they're tired. So fresh blood is helpful, and it's so awesome that they came from all over the country and the world."
Editor's note: The Visitation Relief Center is still seeking volunteers. Those wishing to help with any of the group's many projects are asked to visit the relief center at 721 Mantoloking Road, Brick, and speak with a representative.