The van was packed with students, all talking and laughing as students do. It was a normal Friday in Vermont, New York and most of New Jersey. Nothing seemed amiss until a blanket of silence fell over the group a few miles from Seaside Heights N.J., as scenes of unthinkable devastation appeared in all directions.
Houses, shops, and entire livelihoods lay in ruin, in stark contrast to the places seen just minutes before.
“It’s like a whole different world,” recalls Samantha Barrale, the brains behind the operation. Originally from New Jersey, Barrale planned to go assist in the Sandy recovery efforts alone. When more and more people expressed interest, she decided to organize a trip through the Social Issues Club. After connecting with the Church of Grace and Peace in Toms River, the group was unleashed to assist in the recovery of several houses.
Students were split in two, but the damage to one man’s house was so catastrophic that all 15 assisted him on Saturday. Known only to Barrale as John, his house was smashed by a seven foot wave that plunged inside, filling it with water up to the second floor. He had to be rescued by kayak the next day.
The Cavallos, a couple who owned a house on the same street, had just returned from the hospital after the husband, an 87-year-old man, had undergone triple-bypass surgery. He suffered another heart attack during the storm and was forced to lie on a kitchen counter for 12 hours before he could be canoed to safety, but the effects of pneumonia and hypothermia had already begun to set in. Ryan Flood, one of the chief organizers along with Barrale, was struck most powerfully by this.
“They had a brand new TV, brand new carpeting… they lost everything. The walls are buckling, the walls are warped, they’re not sure if they’ll be able to fix their house,” Flood said. “You’re in your late 80’s. Where do you go, having to start all over?”
As a former Coast Guard search and rescue member, Flood is no stranger to these scenarios.
“It’s a whole different thing to have to go in and talk to people, and to find out their lives are ruined,” Flood said.
Another homeowner who was touched by the selfless actions of the students was Marrita Wishnia, whose house fortunately only suffered minimal structural damage.
“I live alone and my husband died three months ago,” Wishnia said. “The yard was filled with anything that could wash up from the river and the ocean. These girls came and asked if they could help, and they had my yard raked and my neighbor’s done in a couple of hours.”
“Every time I tried to help they took everything out of my hands. It was marvelous, it would have taken me three months,” Wishnia said.
Colleen Kunz, another student who assisted the efforts, was struck by how severe the impact of the storm was.
“People here don’t think anything happened,” Kunz said. “And none of these people would have thought this would happen to them.”
“Then it happened.”
The Sandy relief effort has been arguably one of the most impactful outreach efforts in campus history. College President Dave Wolk has received numerous communications from families that Castleton has helped.
“I’m very proud of the students,” said Wolk, who received “unsolicited letters of gratitude from virtual strangers who are now a part of our family.”
“When those kids went to New Jersey, they never knew we would get such accolades from those they helped. They did it out of a sense of altruism, and it warms my heart,” Wolk said.
The impact of what Barrale, Flood, and the other 13 students in their group didis more than what most students can comprehend. Wishnia herself even found it difficult to explain.
“They were marvelous, marvelous people. Thanks is not a big enough word.”