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A Chance Encounter Transforms into a Mantra to Help New Jersey Recover from Sandy

A Chance Encounter Transforms into a Mantra to Help New Jersey Recover from Sandy

Do It for Leo

A few weeks after the State launched the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) Program to help New Jerseyans rebuild primary homes damaged by Superstorm Sandy, Jim Furfari, a housing recovery official, happened to encounter a man in the parking lot of the Ocean County Housing Recovery Center in Lakewood. The homeowner had come to the Housing Recovery Center about his RREM application for grant funding to rebuild his storm-wrecked home.

Something about the gentleman struck Furfari, who helped set up nine Housing Recovery Centers, including the one in Ocean County, for the State’s housing recovery programs. He approached the man, introduced himself, and asked if there was anything the man needed.

Furfari soon learned that the elderly gentleman had lost his wife during Sandy and was still grieving, which made the task of applying for recovery assistance and rebuilding overwhelming.

Later, after helping the homeowner, whose first name was Leo, Furfari recounted this story to Housing Advisors at the Ocean County HRC. He talked about the double loss Leo had suffered. The Housing Advisors who listened to the story were emotionally moved and inspired to be at their best when helping applicants, said Christina Harris, who was a Housing Advisor at the time and now manages the Ocean HRC.

Soon Ocean County HRC Housing Advisors started saying, “Do it for Leo” when talking about their work. Signs saying “Remember Leo. Keep Smiling” began popping up in Housing Advisors’ work spaces.

Such focus on serving applicants continues to this day across the State’s housing recovery programs as staff diligently works to help Sandy-impacted households navigate the process, manage their individual project and complete construction.

“All of our homeowners are like Leo to us. We have a very strong relationship with them and want to see them return home,” said Marilyn Kleinberg, the assistant manager of the Atlantic County HRC in Egg Harbor Township. “And so many of these homeowners are thankful and appreciative.”

In the Sandy Constituent Services Office at the NJ Department of Community Affairs in Trenton, knowledgeable representatives with years of experience in Sandy recovery respond to recovery inquiries that come in via phone, email, and letter. The goal is always to get back to people quickly – the same day if possible – with an answer to their question.

“We are making a difference,” said Karen Segner, who manages the Sandy Constituent Services Office. “It is truly inspiring to see how people have recovered after Sandy and know that we have helped them in that recovery. It puts things in perspective.”

Back at the Ocean HRC, whenever thank you notes arrive from individuals in the RREM Program and other housing recovery programs, the notes are posted as positive messages in a hallway. Staff there call it the ‘Leo Wall,’ not just to honor Sandy-impacted households in need, but also to remind Housing Advisors that the ‘Leos’ – the applicants – appreciate their work in getting them back home.

“We want to make sure we up our game and take care of every homeowner in the program,” Harris says.

Currently, more than 80 letters – most of them handwritten – are posted on the hallway’s walls, with more added on a regular basis.

“These letters mean so much,” Harris says.

Some letters have been hanging up for so long that they’ve begun to curl and fade. They remain on the wall as a reminder to Housing Advisors that their role is to help homeowners in the program for the long haul. At every morning meeting, the Ocean HRC Housing Advisors recognize any new thank you letters received.

Harris is not surprised that people take the time to write thank you notes and positive letters about the housing recovery programs to show their appreciation. “I think it’s human nature to recognize someone for offering a helping hand,” she says.

“We live and breathe the Leo Wall here. We start our day with it and we end our day with it,” Harris adds. “It’s a very tangible thing to have it here. I do often see homeowners reading the letters.”

As for Leo, he has passed into Sandy lore for HRC Housing Advisors. No longer a single homeowner who needs Housing Advisors’ assistance, he has become their daily mantra to help New Jersey recover from the storm.

For more stories like this one, please visit Spotlight on Recovery.