Published December 13, 2012
It's around this time of year when Vanessa Beard hopes for a white Christmas.
"Christmas is important to me," she says as she walks around her home in Keansburg, N.J.
"I look forward to it. Every year we go out on black Friday and pick up a Christmas tree and decorate the house."
Not this year. Instead, Beard says she's preparing her four children (7-year-old twins Shane and John Paul, 3 year-old Gianna and 2 year-old Aiden) for what she calls the "Sandy Christmas," which to many on the Jersey Shore means no Christmas at all.
In fact, Beard isn't even allowed back into her home, which was flooded and then condemned after the October superstorm. Many of her belongings and valuables are still strewn over her backyard.
"It's really tough knowing that my children aren't going to be able to have Christmas this year," she says as she steps over garbage bags of rotting debris. “It's hard to explain to them.”
And the Beards are not alone. Many residents of shore communities are so destitute they can’t afford clothing much less presents for Christmas.
"It’s a real tragedy,” says fellow Jersey Shore resident Jackie O’Leary. “No one should be deprived of Christmas, especially those who are suffering.”
It’s a sentiment that lead O’Leary and neighbor Stephanie Frederick to start Operation Jersey Shore Santa.
“Right now we have the luxury to think of the holidays,” says Frederick. "These families don't. They worry about their homes and cleaning it up and we want to be the ones thinking of the holidays for them.”
For weeks, O’Leary and Frederick have been collecting hundreds of gifts for Sandy victims. “It’s really amazing the response,” says O’Leary. “A lot of people want to help.”
“There are so many children who are affected,” adds Frederick, “and we want them to have a nice holiday, so we jumped on it and started this organization to help those families in need."
Frederick says she was recently driving through the nearby beach community of Union, where she saw home goods scattered everywhere.
“Amongst the couches and everything, I saw a doll,” she says. “And it was just muddy laying there, and right then it hit me I need to do something for the children.”
She says there are a lot of organizations on the Jersey Shore that are trying to provide clothing and shelter to hurricane victims. And rightly so. But “no one is thinking about the holidays. I felt we needed to make sure these families have presents for Christmas,” Frederick says.
She says trying to help others has turned the tragedy around her into something positive.
“I tell everyone it feels so corny, but I feel so alive right now.”
In fact, she says, Jersey Shore Santa may have changed her life.
"I never felt like I knew myself. I kind of slipped into it and it feels amazing. And, quite frankly, I can't see myself doing anything else now.”
It’s also changed the lives of Beard’s four children, who are now preparing lists for Santa.
“I want a Power Ranger,” says John Paul. “I want a remote-control car,” says Shane,” adding, "I just want to make sure Santa makes it to my home.”
And thanks to Jersey Shore Santa, he will.
Anyone who wants to donate a toy can visit: http://www.operationjerseyshoresanta.org.