Toms River, N.J. — Some of the towns hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy more than two weeks ago were in central New Jersey – towns like Toms River.
It's there that the home of 80-year-old mother Ann Vett was flooded in the storm – and it's one of many places volunteers with the Cary-based North Carolina Baptist Men are helping residents slowly but surely rebuild, not only their homes but their lives.
At Vett's house, where she's lived for 35 years, volunteers from World Overcomers Christian Church and First Baptist Church of Cary are gutting it so that crews can come in and fix the damage that Sandy caused.
"They just do it," Vett's daughter, Lee Spilner, said. "They ask if you need help, and they help you."
The group of approximately 200 volunteers has set up a mini-city in Toms River – as well as the New Jersey township of Piscataway, The Meadowlands and Atlantic City – with everything they need to help others, including food, fuel, water and even a laundry facility. In addition to helping with damaged homes, it has provided more than 250,000 meals to hurricane victims throughout New Jersey and New York.
Volunteers, like Winslow Thornton, can relate.
His mother's house – the New Orleans home he grew up in – was destroyed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He helped clean up and rebuild her home.
"I understand the loss," Thornton, of Cary, said. "So, I wanted to come up and do what we can to lift their spirits. It's a monumental effort."
Whether they're feeding, cleaning out, or consoling, the volunteers say that they can't help but be moved by what they're seeing.
Jimmy Lawrence, a relief manager from Rockingham County who is helping oversee the recovery in Toms River, likens the devastation to that on the Gulf Coast – "New Jersey's Katrina."
"We're dealing with people that are going through, probably, the worst time in their lives, and we need to minister to them," Lawrence said. "That's the only way I know how to put it – to be there for them, cry with them, laugh with them, talk to them. Whatever it takes, that's why we're here."
For Lawrence, the work is more than just volunteering. He says it's a calling.
"I think God is involved in this. I know he's involved in this, and I know that I've got to do this," Lawrence said. "We're putting feet on God's love."
And the love is not lost on those who receive it.
"I hope someday we can pay it forward to someone else," Spilner said. "If I keep talking, I'm going to cry. That's how much I feel for these people that are helping everyone. Not just us – everyone."