(Photo by Amy C. Elliott)

Job fair reaches ravaged New Jersey coast

Superstorm Sandy has not only taken away people’s homes, it has claimed numerous jobs and businesses. This is particularly true for the Seaside Heights area of New Jersey, where a shoreline community that was once a tourist hotspot has been decimated by the storm.

With these sentiments in mind, a group of Legionnaires organized a job fair at George P. Vanderveer Post 129, located a short drive away from Seaside Heights. The Hiring Our Heroes event, held in conjunction with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Nov. 27, especially catered to local veterans who are out of work because of the storm. Nearly 100 attendees were on hand and at least 12 of them were hired on the spot.

Event coordinators’ original plan was to invite employers who could offer temporary employment in the wake of the storm. The plan hit a snag when they were informed that construction companies in the area wouldn’t be able to hire many people because the rebuilding process won’t really begin for a few more months, when wreckage is cleared and insurance companies can begin paying out.

But the usual employers that attend the Hiring Our Heroes fairs – Home Depot, Lowe’s, Helmets to Hardhats and various government agencies – showed up in full force to support those veterans who have been displaced or rendered jobless.

"The intention was to get construction companies there, but this ended up being very difficult," said Bob Looby, past department commander of New Jersey. "But we were blessed with some of our normal employers that came. We were able to fill the post, a very large building. We had about 30 employers there."

Also in attendance were job representatives from insurance companies, the New Jersey Department of Veterans Affairs and the New Jersey State parole board. They interviewed and accepted résumés from attendees who had to battle even more inclement to get to the job fair.

A mixture of rain and snow draped over Seaside Heights for much of the day but didn’t hinder results.

"The final numbers were good," Looby said. "The mission was still met, not by construction companies but by other employers."

Along with the job fair, Post 129 provided necessities and hot meals for veterans and all locals – just as it has for almost a month. Since Sandy’s landfall at the end of October, Looby says Post 129 has been feeding at least 100 people every day.

"During the day (of the job fair), there were people who have lost their homes coming in and out and carrying bags and bags of clothing and food from the post," Looby said.

Remarkably, Post 129 managed to bear the brunt of the storm and suffer damage only to its exterior. While neighboring buildings and structures were lost entirely, the post stood strong. "For some bizarre reason, we didn't even lose power," said Rich Gato, Post 129 commander.

Post 129 seized upon its good fortune and provided the community food and necessities, serving as an official Red Cross "warming center." This included serving Thanksgiving dinner to nearly 500 people.

“Anybody could come in – utility workers from out of town, people who lost their homes – and get some warmth and a meal,” Gato said. "We have a kitchen here, and in addition to some subsidies from the Red Cross, we were able to feed a lot of people. The word spread quickly."

The post plans to continue serving the community as needed and also host job fairs as rebuilding becomes possible. Looby, along with leadership from Post 129, plan to host at least two fairs in late winter or early spring, when rebuilding is underway and construction companies are looking for help. They plan to capitalize on the past success that Hiring Our Heroes job fairs have had at Post 129.

Until then, Looby said the focus is on continuing to help those who have lost more than just their jobs. This includes not only helping the local military population but the entire community, which is a shell of its former self, as its iconic roller coaster and amusement rides lay in ruins.

"We aren’t just there for veterans in times like these, we’re there for the community too," Looby said.