On October 21, 2012, Neptune resident Pam Callender was managing everyday life with her two teenage foster children, in the modest dream home she purchased seven years earlier in the Shark River Hills section overlooking Shark River.
“At that point, my life was no different than any other middle class, single parent household,” Callender said. “There was never enough time after taking care of the kid’s with their schedules and activities. When the economy took a dive, it was tough but we survived. We always had a good time and I was glad to have a second to relax in my house.”
That Sunday Callender sat in her screened porch listening, for the first time, to news about possible storm approaching and watching leaves blow onto the edge of the choppy river. She noted how especially big and blue the sky was that day.
Nine days later, after weathering the Superstorm Sandy at a friend’s house in Ocean Township, she woke up to a text from her neighbor that read “not good” which might have been the understatement of the decade.
“My brain started with the ‘what ifs’ and I thought maybe a tree fell on my house but I never, ever could have imagined what I saw when I came home,” said Callender. “It was like a monster came and shook my house. I was hyperventilating and shaking. I was in shock and didn’t know where to even begin.”
Four feet of water flowed through her house during the storm. Out of the muck that littered the first floor, she pulled pieces of her grandparent’s furniture and china. Family came to help pour Shark River out of drawers and cabinets.
Callender says she reflexively went into “survival mode.” In the back of her mind she knew that she would never be able to live in that home ever again. A few months later she decided to tear down her dream house.
She spent the next year and a half, with the help of her family, navigating insurance claims and grant applications. It became her part time job to look for help anywhere she could find it.
“I am very independent and not used to asking for help,” she said. “I never took charity, I gave charity. Every step, every rejection, every hoop I had to jump through that became a dead end, was overwhelmingly emotional.”
No matter how she sliced the budget, Callender came up $150,000 short to rebuild. Staring at a folder full of “polite” rejection letters, Callender prepared to completely walk away from her home and let it go into foreclosure.
“I started telling myself the best option was to walk away and that I could manage living in an apartment until my credit became good enough to start over,” she said. “But I work in the financial services industry and knew it would be almost impossible to get a job if my credit was horrible. I promised myself I would try one last time to find help.”
Callender logged on to the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund website and was directed to Coastal Habitat for Humanity’s application for assistance.
“Coastal Habitat called me a few days later and said ‘We will help you.’ At that point I didn’t even understand what Maureen was saying,” she said. “I could not believe someone was actually willing to help me.”
Today, she is making plans to return to her new home built by Coastal Habitat on the same property as her other house. After two of the most challenging years of her life, she is hopeful to be home to celebrate the holidays.
“It’s extremely humbling to get the kind of help I have had from Coastal Habitat,” said an emotional Callender. “There are not the right words to describe the thoughtfulness of the detail the volunteers are all putting into my house. It is overwhelming.”
Soon, Callender will be helping one of the estimated 30 Shark River Hills-area families still displaced by the storm.
“This is so much more than me coming home,” said Callender. “Sandy could have destroyed my credit and life in so many other ways. I want to help my neighbors rebuild so much more than a house.”
Watch a two minute recap of the organization’s work over the past two years at CoastalHabitat.org.