By John Burton
HIGHLANDS – Given the outpouring of generosity and support she and her husband received after Sandy, there was no question about Karen Burke stepping up and lending a hand.
“I just had this overwhelming feeling of gratitude,” she said, “and I just wanted to help other people.”
For the last year, starting in the storm’s aftermath, the Burkes worked to help area residents, helping distribute food and equipment, assisting with the cleanup here and Sea Bright. And a little later, Karen helped establish Hope for Highlands, getting the community the needed assistance. She also has been working – both behind the scenes and with some of the actual building with other volunteers – to erect a playground in the borough, in honor of the victims of last December’s Newtown, Conn., shooting.
Burke and her husband Joe had their Leonardo home flooded and damaged by last October’s storm, destroying much of their personal effects along with their home. Joe Burke put out word on Facebook asking for help from friends.
“What we got was around 60, who came with all kinds of stuff. With food, hot coffee – stuff that wasn’t easy to come by,” she said. And that outpouring had a real impact on the couple.
The Burkes own a condominium in the borough, which had been used as a rental property and more recently by Karen’s parents who spent the summer here. The condo, where they’ve been living while their home continues to be worked on, was spared from any significant damage. While the couple was thankful, they surveyed the disaster that had so dramatically affected the community. “We were in shock,” she said, remembering how the streets were covered in oil slicks, boats from the nearby marina were strewn about, buildings were waterlogged and wrecked.
Her husband knows a manager of an area Lowe’s home improvement center, who donated lots of much need items, such as tools, trash cans, bags and cleaning materials. The couple joined members of the New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association (a client of the accounting firm where Karen works) and distributed the supplies along Sea Bright’s Ocean Avenue and Highlands’ Bay Avenue, and jumped in to help people with their cleanup. Over the course of a couple of weeks Burke estimated that she and her husband worked on probably more than 20 homes in the communities.
While doing that, Burke was struck by the sheer number of people – many not even from this area – who pitched in and were doing a yeoman’s job of helping community members. “You would walk down Bay Avenue and see so many people and see all the different license plates (from different states),” she observed. “That was very moving.”
Burke works as a certified public accountant for a Livingston firm, which specializes in not-for-profits. When the Highlands Business Partnership, a not-for-profit overseeing the town’s commercial district, asked for Burke’s help in establishing a separate organization within its organization, Burke stepped up. As a board member for Hope For Highlands, she has been using her experience to wade through the piles of red tape and paperwork to administer the donated money, reimbursing people for material purchases, allowing many to get what they need to be able to eventually get home.
Part of her motivation was how she and her husband have an extended family who was able to help in so many ways. “I couldn’t imagine what we would have done without them,” she said. But there were many who didn’t have that support network, she realized, “And that’s why you want to jump in and help.”
The generosity of so many still amazes her, she said. An elderly woman, a borough resident, received a $28,000 check from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), for her damaged home, and donated the money to Hope For Highlands. “Such an amazing lady,” Burke said.
The organization so far has distributed in the neighborhood of $250,000, she said, with the coffers at this point pretty well tapped out, with more work that needs to be done.
When the New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association, and its president, Bill Lavin, selected Highlands for one of its 26 locations for its Where Angels Play project, Burke said she knew she wanted to be a part of it.
The firefighters’ union’s Sandy Ground Project is working to construct the playgrounds as memorials for the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims, selecting 26 Sandy-damaged communities in the northeast (both Sea Bright and Union Beach are now home to the new playgrounds), with Highlands’ playground scheduled for dedication on Sunday Oct. 26, and another coming to Belmar.
Along with working for the union and the paperwork for the project, Burke has actual sweat equity invested in it, going to the borough’s Veterans Park on Bay Avenue and working with other volunteers to erect the equipment. “I’m not driving a big Cat, I’m not swinging a hammer,” she explained. “I am helping putting the pieces together,” at the site.
“It’s just an uplifting project, it’s just a beautiful thing,” she said. So much so, “it doesn’t feel like work. It’s almost a selfish project,” Burke acknowledged.
The community has a long way to go but will be rebuilt and return. “It’ll be safer, more sustainable,” she predicted. “And will be better.”
The Burkes are hoping to have their home completed by the middle of next March. “And we’re going to have the most kick-ass St. Patrick’s Day party,” she said.
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