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Shelter From the Storm: A Story of Thanksgiving

A single mom and an East Atlantic Boulevard homeowner form an unlikely bond in the aftermath of the storm that devastated Ocean City.

Jessica Connolly found what she feared when she returned to her ground-level apartment at Third Street and Wesley Avenue after the flooding from a massive coastal storm receded: an overwhelming stench from waters that had ruined almost everything she owned.

The 25-year-old single mother of two had no car, no regular job and suddenly no home.

A short distance away, Robyn Betterly was returning to a vacation home on East Atlantic Boulevard in the Gardens section of Ocean City and realizing how fortunate she was. The property had sustained no damage, while so many others on the island had.

"Somebody's got to be able to take advantage of this home," the 49-year-old resident of Fort Washington, Pa., said to her husband, Mark.

What happened next is a story that has repeated itself in various forms throughout the city as the community pulled together to help feed and shelter families displaced by the Oct. 29 "superstorm" that started as Hurricane Sandy before merging with a second winter storm system as it made landfall 12 miles north of Ocean City.

The Ocean City Ecumenical Council Food Cupboard at the Ocean City Sports and Civic Center has served more 5,000 people, and the relief center at St. Peter's United Methodist Church fed another 5,000 through Nov. 17. The Ocean City Tabernacle relief center (food and clothing) had assisted 5,000 people within two weeks of the storm.

Ocean City hotels (such as Biscayne Suites and the Port O' Call) helped house displaced families. Nearly 400 volunteers have worked in various capacities canvassing the city for needs and distributing relief information. Volunteer groups from throughout the region and nation have arrived to help gut homes, start repairs and rebuild properties.

The Betterlys reached out to OCNJ CARE (Cleanup And Recovery Effort)  — the volunteer group of citizens, city officials, businesses and churches working to coordinate all relief efforts for Ocean City. They offered their unoccupied vacation home to the relief effort. A few days later they received a call from Kathy Sykes, a volunteer working to help find housing for displaced families — including Connolly and her two young daughters, Miranda, 6, and Alyssa, 4.

Betterly asked Sykes when the family might need her home.

"Well, we were hoping they could get in tonight," Sykes replied.

A second storm — a nor'easter — was moving up the coast, and forecasters predicted another round of possible flooding.

And so Betterly made arrangements to provide access to the house. As Sykes drove the family down East Atlantic Boulevard, Connolly nervously eyed the breach in the dunes at Waverly Beach. But she and her daughters soon found themselves in a tasteful home that many Ocean City residents and visitors would covet.

And in the few weeks since the storm, Connolly and Betterly have formed a bond. Betterly bought dresses for the girls to wear to their baptism at St. Peter's United Methodist Church. She's helping Connolly in a search for full-time employment and a permanent home and in filing claims with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"She's had to deal with so much," Betterly said of Connolly's interactions with her landlord, utility companies, FEMA and the school district.

In the dining room of her new "shelter," Connolly cried when she recalled the unfathomable generosity of a woman who would give up her home to a complete stranger.

And on Thanksgiving, she'll likely give thanks again to a woman who's now a friend.

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OCNJ CARE is still working to meet the urgent and immediate needs of the community. The group is moving forward and planning Phase 2, which encompasses rebuilding homes and permanently placing displaced residents. At this point the urgent need is for cash donations to rebuild and find people housing. You can help by sending a check to OCNJ CARE, PO Box 807, Ocean City, N.J. 08226 or drop check off at Ocean City Home Bank, 10th Asbury Ave. or access www.ocnjcare.org.

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