Donald “Bunky” Hill looked at what was left of Post 143 in Highlands, N.J., after Superstorm Sandy ripped through the small town last fall and didn’t lose faith.
Despite more than 5 feet of water flooding the post, knocking down everything but the building’s walls and a shuffleboard table, the 43-year Legionnaire and commander of Post 43 knew that the facility would be rebuilt.
“Never (a doubt),” Hill said. “Absolutely not. We were going to open. That’s it. That storm’s not going to stop us. The day of the storm we planned to be open for St. Patrick’s Day.”
The post made that goal, opening 143 days after the storm hit, and is now even closer to fulfilling Hill’s promise, thanks to the efforts of several entities. On April 27, the volunteer group Rebuilding Together showed up at Post 143 and brought along its corporate partners – Sherwin-Williams, Sears Holdings and Scripps Networks’ HGTV and DIY – and paired them up with volunteers with Comcast as part of Comcast Cares Day and National Rebuilding Day. In addition to painting and retiling the large back room of the post, volunteers also painted chairs and the outside walls and landscaped along the side of the post, pouring mulch and placing U.S. flags in the ground.
Joan Parzel, executive director at Rebuilding Together Jersey City, said that Rebuilding Together volunteers also did lighting and electrical work to the post the previous Saturday. Approximately 50 or so volunteers came to the post.
“It’s very rewarding,” said Parzel, who has been with Rebuilding Together for 22 years. “We’re very passionate about what we do. We all very much believe in giving back. We’ve all been there at some point in our lives. Whoever needs help, we do what we can do.”
Hill said Rebuilding Together reached out to the post. “What a welcome call that was,” he said.
“We’re out of money,” added Jason Scott, Post 143’s second vice commander. “We were literally out of money, so without them doing this, it would probably take until June or July.”
Post 143’s members previously rebuilt the social area of the post, donating their own time to complete repairs so the post could get back to generating some revenue. Contributions from the National Emergency Fund and the Department of New Jersey, as well as donations from other Legion posts, made the renovation possible.
Immediately after Sandy hit, Post 143’s members didn’t focus on rebuilding. Rather, they set up a tent and served hot meals to other Sandy victims, as well as serving as a clothing drive distribution point. So much clothing was donated that the post had to give some of the surplus to another charity.
Mike Wilson, vice commander for the Department of New Jersey, toured many of the posts in the area right after Sandy struck. He’s amazed by the progress the post has made.
“We came down about a week after the storm hit,” Wilson said. “When I first got here, they had already gutted the walls where the water line was. They had closed the back. But here they are now.”
Wilson said an event like Sandy brings out the best in people. “I think when a disaster hits, people fall back on a natural instinct,” he said. “I think it’s the spirit of people wanting to help.”
Department of New Jersey Commander Gene O’Grady was on hand to deliver checks from both the Legion’s National Emergency Fund and the department’s Sandy assistance fund to Post 143 and other posts in the area. One such post, 321 in Union Beach, was completely destroyed, while Post 62’s building in South Amboy has been condemned. New Jersey has received more than $260,000 from the National Emergency Fund, while the department itself has given another $100,000 in grants to Legionnaires and posts impacted by Sandy.
“One of the most important things about this community is that after you leave today, they’re going to need additional help,” O’Grady told volunteers at Post 143. “By you helping us get our American Legion post back up and running, we’re going to be able to continue to help the community here on a daily basis. I know that all of the people here at Post 143 are grateful, and we will continue to do the job that you start off here today.”