Magazine Features

Hope after the storm

Andrea Kassimatis and Mike Aponte walk with three of their six children: Donovan, 2; Alysia, 5; and Collin, 11. Not pictured are: Xavier, 17; Ethan, 18; and Devin, 22.

Superstorm Sandy didn’t last for 40 days and nights as did the Great Flood in the days of Noah, but Andrea Kassimatis and her family felt the devastating effects of Sandy for many years.

Andrea says her Union Beach, N.J., family went through some “dark days” after the October 2012 storm, but finding The Salvation Army’s Pathway of Hope (POH) program in 2017 helped turn things around. She now feels and displays an “attitude of gratitude.”

“The Salvation Army was our guiding light and our guiding force through this whole process. It was like Noah’s Ark through the storm,” Andrea says. “People underappreciate what The Salvation Army means to local communities. I don’t think people understand how important and vital The Salvation Army is to the community.

“Over the past seven years, The Salvation Army has been there for my family and throughout the many seasons. They have been able to provide services to us that have covered all aspects of our physical recovery process, as well as the internal healing that was needed while dealing with the aftermath.”

Andrea and her partner, Mike Aponte, and their two children at the time, lived a quiet life until Superstorm Sandy hit. Several neighbors had above–ground oil storage units that were destroyed during the storm. An estimated 225 pounds of diesel fuel seeped into Andrea’s home and made it uninhabitable.

“The entire structure of the house just reeked of diesel fuel,” Andrea recalls. “So, for health and safety reasons, we unfortunately had to demolish our house.

“We were directly impacted by the storm and its effects physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and financially. It was such a struggle for us and just put a strain on all areas of our lives.”

More trials

Andrea said her family found hot meals in Hazlet, N.J., along with spiritual help and a listening ear from Salvation Army volunteers.

“There were always people to talk to there,” she said. “We found warmth. There was always that connection and that love, and that big embrace was there for us in a very dark time. The Salvation Army was there from the day that Sandy came, and they’ve been there since and throughout our community.

“We would have never recovered our lives if it wasn’t for The Salvation Army and I can say that with 100 percent honesty.”

The family got into a new home three years after Sandy, but things took a negative turn again not long after Andrea went on maternity leave. The township miscalculated the property taxes and wanted a year and a half of arrears; the mortgage increased by $850 a month and depleted the family’s escrow account.

“We live paycheck to paycheck, and we work hard,” Andrea said. “There was no way we could come up with a ridiculous amount of money in 30 days like they were asking. It started to feel like that war zone feeling again. It became a very, very dark time.

“I began suffering from postpartum depression. We were in jeopardy of losing our home we had fought so hard to rebuild and Mike and I began fighting constantly which trickled over to the kids. I felt lost, overwhelmed, and in darkness. I was losing hope.”

Andrea’s mother, Madeline, a soldier and volunteer at the former Hazlet Outpost, had requested prayer for the family many times.

Major Betty Israel, then the outpost director in Hazlet, mentioned that Andrea and her family would be good candidates for the POH program, which works with families through intense case management to help them break the cycle of poverty.

The pathway back

Andrea began the POH program in July 2017 and met weekly with case manager Jesabel Cruz.

“I was able to work on setting short–term and long–range goals for myself and my family,” Andrea said. “Through our two years in the initiative, I learned how to better manage time and set more realistic goals for myself. I also learned that it was OK to not be OK sometimes. I learned to forgive myself and to try to be easier and kinder to myself. I learned the importance of making me a priority.”

Some of the goals Andrea set included going back to school to obtain her RN degree, gaining full–time employment and, of course, fighting to save the family home from foreclosure.

“The intensive case management meetings are essential because they allow us to troubleshoot, brainstorm, and problem–solve any areas that may hinder the growth and progress of achieving my goals,” Andrea said. “It has been quite a journey going through the Pathway of Hope and my family and I have gained tremendous insight and strength.”

However, there were some roadblocks. For example, while Andrea sought full–time employment, her CPR license was expiring, and she was financially unable to pay for the bi–annual certification. Cruz helped her get into a free certification workshop at New Jersey Divisional Headquarters.

Andrea said she would highly recommend the POH program.

“If you’re really looking to turn your life around and get on the right track and are willing to work hard, I’d say go for it,” she said. “It’s a fantastic program. You only get out of it what you put into it, so you’ve got to attend your regular meetings and stick to your goals.

“You’ve also got to open up and admit when you need help. It was very hard for me to open up and I found out when I didn’t, I would fall backward in my progress. Being open and honest is very important.”

A God connection

Sara Jenkins, a POH regional coordinator in the New Jersey Division, said Andrea came to the program “during a low point” and “her hope was lost.” However, those are the kinds of people the POH program is designed to help.

“Andrea refused to continue to let life happen to her and found a way to take control of her life,” Jenkins said. “Through tough love and pastoral support, Andrea was able to pick up the pieces to make her family whole.

“Through hard work and dedication Andrea learned how capable she truly is of taking the reins and following her own path to her destiny. Andrea will no longer allow life to happen to her. Instead, she will control the outcome with her newly developed skillset and positive attitude.” 

Andrea has also found a spiritual rebirth through the experience. Her son, Collin, began attending services at the Red Bank, N.J., Corps in 2015 and is now a junior soldier.

“We worked through a lot of our issues by going to counseling and even to church,” Andrea says. “It’s a great feeling when you go to church and you have that connection with God and with others. You have that feeling that everything is OK and that it’s going to be OK and it kind of gives you that fuel to keep going.

“It’s such a renewing and cleansing feeling going to church. You walk out of it feeling renewed. That was such a nice feeling and a change from what was going on in our lives at the time.”

Andrea tries to attend church services when her work schedule allows.

“Church has provided us with a sense of love and support from a loving, powerful, and all–embracing God,” she said. “It serves as an emotional and spiritual reset for me. I am grateful for The Salvation Army and its Pathway of Hope initiative for all it has done to make my family whole.”

A family restored

Andrea also found a silver lining in the storm clouds brought by Sandy and a real–life example of Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

“Despite Superstorm Sandy being as awful as it was, it brought so much light into our life too,” she said. “We met the most incredible people because of it, and I can’t imagine my life without these people and these areas of my life that have changed because of it.

“Despite all the darkness, there’s always that light that comes from God and that faith and feeling from God that you know it’s going to be OK and you’re in His hands. With Him, you can accomplish anything.”

Andrea believes her family, including children Devin, 22;  Ethan, 19; Xavier, 17; Collin, 11; Alysia, 5; and Donovan, 2, is now back on track.  Ethan recently became a U.S. Marine.

“We’re never going to be the same people we were 7 or 8 years ago, but we’re a strong family, we’re a very grateful family, a loving family, and a humble family,” she said. “I’m so proud of how far we’ve come.” 

by Robert Mitchell

Pathway of Hope

The Salvation Army’s Pathway of Hope initiative provides individualized services to families with children who desire to take action to break the cycle of crisis and vulnerability that repeats generation after generation. It seeks to address the root causes of poverty by helping families overcome challenges like unemployment, unstable housing, and lack of education — leading families down a path toward increased stability and self–sufficiency.

The Approach:

  • Catalyzing community collaboration in service of shared clients.
  • Moving families from crises and vulnerability to stability and eventually self–sufficiency, tracking family progress along the way.
  • Bringing all The Salvation Army’s internal resources to bear, aligned to the goals of clients.
  • Focus on hope as a measured outcome, which represents the distinctly relational, spiritual outcome that The Salvation Army seeks in the work it does.
  • Strengths–based case management services.

Are you in need? Find a Salvation Army corps in your area at www.salvationarmyusa.org.

Previous post

Finding Life Support

Next post

Returning love for love