Asbury Park Press: Free financial counseling coming soon for Sandy victims
Shannon Mullen | Asbury Park Press
BRICK —A new initiative funded by first lady Mary Pat Christie’s Sandy relief fund will provide free financial counseling to help storm victims navigate the complexities of the rebuilding process.
Operation HOPE Inc., based in Los Angeles, plans to open six counseling centers throughout New Jersey, beginning with a location in Brick later this month.
The nonprofit foundation Mary Pat Christie chairs, the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund, announced last week that it was awarding Operation HOPE a grant of $600,000 to fund the program, called Project Restore Hope.
“They’ve been around for 20 years, and they really know how to navigate the labyrinth of financial organizations (and) insurance companies and really help people get back on their feet financially,” the first lady said at a press conference Monday at the Brick Township Parks &Recreation Office.
The township is donating office space in the building, located in a shopping plaza along Chambers Bridge Road., to house the first counseling center. The centers will be staffed by full-time employees and volunteers with backgrounds in the banking, financial services and insurance industries who can assist individuals, families and small businesses impacted by the Oct. 29 superstorm.
Mary Pat Christie, who works for a Wall Street hedge fund, has made financial literacy one of her relief fund’s chief funding priorities, along with aiding groups focused on providing rebuilding, housing and mental health assistance.
She said Monday that she was advised early on by someone familiar with hurricane relief efforts in Florida that a lack of financial know-how among disaster victims in that state has been detrimental to recovery efforts.
“I didn’t want New Jersey to make the same error,” the first lady said.
Her approach dovetails with the mission of Operation HOPE, which focuses on financial literacy and “financial dignity” initiatives across the U.S. The nonprofit group already operates a toll-free financial counseling hotline for disaster victims at 1-888-388-HOPE, which was launched in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“We say all of the counseling services we provide are both from a right brain and a left brain,” said Mary Hagerty Ehrsam, chief executive officer of Operation HOPE’s New York City office.
“It’s not just technical information; that is needed. But it’s also working with you knowing that after surviving a disaster of the size and magnitude of Sandy, it’s emotional,” she said. “It’s incredibly difficult, and it’s hard, even if you’ve been given all the right information, to put the plan in place, and execute it.”
Brick Mayor Stephen C. Acropolis said the Operation HOPE office will provide storm victims in the area with a critical "one-stop" service, a concept that appeals to Christine Winters, who runs the Visitation Relief Center in Brick.
"It's insurance, it's FEMA, it's SBA, it's figuring out the mortgages," Winters said of the myriad financial issues many residents are wrestling with nearly six months after the storm.
"At the relief center in Brick, we do everything from tool lending to accepting donations of goods. We have a food bank, we provide case management and volunteer housing, but this piece —helping people navigate through the paperwork, the financial counseling —that's one piece we didn't have and our families are in need of," she said.
The Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund has raised more than $33 million so far, and has awarded a total of $4.7 million in grants to nonprofit relief groups around the state. Mary Pat Christie said the relief fund will announce another $6.3 million in grants by the end of April.
“We know it’s really important to get the money out into people’s hands so they can start rebuilding,” she said.