POINT PLEASANT BEACH, N.J.—Age wasn’t a factor in the random acts of kindness across the Jersey Shore after Superstorm Sandy.
Thousands of volunteers, from young kids tagging along with their parents to retired adults helping their neighbors, have poured across the Jersey Shore to help the storm’s victims recover.
Countless more might have come this summer, except for one thing: They’d be breaking the law.
A state statute now under review by state officials prohibits anyone under age 18 from coming within 30 feet of construction work. While there is an exception for helping nonprofit organizations with affordable housing, no such exception currently exists for disaster relief.
“It’s a shame,” said Jessica Kerr, an 18-year-old who hoped to spend her seventh summer of construction-based mission trips at the Shore. “There’s a lot of work that can be done in New Jersey, and people who are able and willing aren’t allowed to help” she told the Asbury Park Press of Neptune.
The statute banning younger teens from construction work is part of the state’s child labor laws and regulations. It is part of the same law prohibits anyone under age 18 from working at a mine or quarry or using heavy machinery in various capacities, and limits employment related to alcohol.
The crux of the state statute is safety, but it’s all-encompassing wording has restricted how many volunteers can help with recovery after Sandy. Watch the video above to see some local volunteer efforts.
Kerr’s group is one example. The Virginia Beach, Va., teen planned to spend a week here helping victims rebuild with about 40 others her age and younger from her church, but they went to do similar construction work in Marion, Va., instead after learning only part of their group could legally help at the work sites.
The Rev. Carl Wilton of Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church had been welcoming volunteer groups to stay at his Point Pleasant Beach church for months before he learned about the state statute.
The two large youth groups he had planning to stay at the church while they helped rebuild Sandy-ravaged homes had to alter their plans to avoid breaking a law. That has left Wilton seriously concerned about the law’s impact on the pool of available volunteers and, overall, the Shore’s recovery.
“It seems a blanket prohibition. It sounds rather extreme,” he said. “There are probably better ways to promote safety rather than ban any sort of presence at all.”
Brian Murray, a spokesman for the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said they are fully aware of the statute and its impact after Sandy.
“On the one hand, we want to ensure that Sandy recovery efforts are not needlessly impeded. At the same time, we obviously would not permit exposing young workers who want help their communities to dangerous situations, and we intend to maintain the proper work-safety standards for everyone,” he said.
In seeking that balance, Murray said they are exploring their legal options. He declined to comment further. The Department of State, which includes the Governor’s Office of Volunteerism, did not reply to requests for comment.
The founder of a Point Pleasant Beach-based Sandy recovery group admits the statute has raised concerns. Shore 2 Recover founder Toni Pecunia said people don’t understand why they can’t help with Sandy-ravaged homes. She said it’s hard to turn away the help, but appreciates the law.
If someone gets injured or hurt at a site, an organization like hers can get sued, Pecunia said.
“There’s a lot of E. coli in the sand, there’s been mold in the cleanups, there’s bacteria and it’s very, very, very dangerous,” she said.
Help is needed outside the homes, too, Pecunia said. Shore 2 Recover is organizing a park cleanup and started a summer intern program for high school juniors through college kids to help their group with administrative work, fundraising and planning, and outdoor cleanups, she said.
Walter Vincent, volunteer coordinator for the Monmouth County Long Term Recovery Group, feels the salt marsh cleanups and dune grass plantings that youths can do here doesn’t ultimately have the same effect.
“They can see what it means for an individual to rebuild their house and see what it means when they can move home,” said Vincent, 66, remembering how it felt when he went on mission trips in high school. “I think that experience is really what builds a future of service for these people, and they’ll miss that.”
Vincent, through his group’s liaison to the Governor’s Office, said that the state is looking at the statute.
A potential fix for next summer could be forthcoming in a bill introduced last month by Assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini, R-Monmouth, which would permit volunteers between the ages of 14 to 17 to engage in housing construction activities if the work is supervised by an approved nonprofit organization.
Angelini said thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed during Sandy and that nonprofit organizations want to include youth groups in rehabilitating and rebuilding damaged homes and buildings.
However, bill A4221 hasn’t gone through committee review yet and lawmakers are on summer recess.
Angelini said she hopes the proposed legislation can be enacted “in time for next summer.”
The issue came to light, Angelini said, at a meeting of the Monmouth County Long Term Recovery Group, which addresses Sandy-related social services. Angelini said a Federal Emergency Management Agency representative reported that Louisiana officials had discovered similar concerns that resulted from minors participating in the construction of housing after Hurricane Katrina.
Already since Sandy, the little-known law has led to some volunteer groups using kids without realizing they may be breaking the law, Vincent said.
“There are people anxious to work and people anxious to have work done,” he said.
Starting work shortly after the storm and working twice weekly through May, a group of 20 students from the Collier High School in the Wickatunk section of Marlboro helped repair classmate Julia Christiano’s Union Beach home that had been devastated by Sandy.
The volunteers had to get permission from their parents and were supervised by the building trades instructor and administration, said Sister Deborah Drago, executive director of Collier Youth Services.
Because rebuilding a house takes time, Yakelin Melendez, a 17-year-old student from Red Bank, thinks there could be days where people could come to a site to clean up or do smaller work in a way that allows them to be part of the project without being put at risk.
Patrick Walsh, an 18-year-old Collier student from Howell, wasn’t sure what he would get out of the experience, but really enjoyed being part of his peer’s recovery and hopes more people get that opportunity.
“There are lots of laws and there’s a reason for them. I don’t say ‘Yay’ or ‘Nah,’ but I think people should be able to give something back,” Walsh said.
Christiano, 18, was certainly thrilled to have her peers help in her home.
“The law is not helping the state. It’s not helping these people who want to be back home,” she said. “I think they should renegotiate the law about this and allow more volunteers to get families back in their homes much quicker.”
Knowing how many people would still be hurting after Sandy, Kerr said her youth group was inspired to bring their enthusiasm and work skills to New Jersey.
Their work environments have always been safe and supervised, Kerr said. No one touches a tool, from hammer to power tool, without a tutorial, she said. The law should require supervision, but allow teenagers on the site because they can be efficient and learn life skills, she said.
One year, Sarah VanDeveer, 18, who has been with Kerr for every mission, said their group simply fixed the yard of man in Morehead City, N.C.
“We helped him in what we thought was such a small way and it meant the world to him,” she said. “That was one of my favorite trips.”
One of the group’s supervisors, Kevin Mooney, 59, brought a group of adults from Virginia Beach to help in some way. None of the work they did here, including insulation, drywall placement and redoing a living space, was above his youth group, and they could have helped more than his group of seven, he said.
“We have enough adults that have the know-how, and the kids are eager to help,” Mooney said. “If we can’t put that to use there, we’ll put it to use somewhere else. It’s not like there’s a shortage of need for help.”