Kristina O'Neill and business partner Debbie Mantia were thinking of closing their children's play center on Long Beach's West Beech Street after the place was wrecked by superstorm Sandy.
Four feet of saltwater left Seaside Celebrations with a soggy mess of toys and waterlogged furnishings.
But the community stepped in to save the dream business they've owned since 2007. Volunteers hosted a fundraiser and provided the manpower to clean up, replace Sheetrock and paint. Parents pitched in, buying items from a wish list of toys and furnishings. The center was back open last month.
The effort was part of a Long Beach grassroots initiative that residents, business owners and volunteers call "Project Pay It Forward." It aims to help struggling small businesses and nonprofits come back.
"It's really amazing how this has steamrolled into a community effort," said O'Neill, 37. "It's overwhelming to me as a mom, as a business owner and as a community member. I wouldn't be able to reopen if it wasn't for the community."
The project grew out of a partnership between the Long Beach Surfer's Association and business owners. They saw the need to assist small businesses, particularly in the city's West End, that were lacking proper insurance when the storm hit or whose owners are waiting on disbursement of funds or government loans and have seen a drop in customers since Sandy displaced many residents.
The only catch? Those that receive help are expected to help others in the next group projects. Organizers say they want to bring back their city, one establishment at a time.
The first project was a fundraising dinner for a chiropractor's office. Seaside Celebrations was next. Then came a fundraiser for West Elementary School. Now, volunteers are working at J.W. Trainor's bar.
"It's great and it's unbelievable," said Tim Trainor, 37, a lifelong Long Beach resident whose family owns the bar. "The community has always been tight-knit like that."
The group is seeking more volunteers and working on a list of places that need help, said Billy Kupferman, president of the surfers association.
"If we lose these businesses we are going to have a different town," said Kupferman, 33, a teacher in Garden City. "If we lose the businesses, then we lose our neighbors, who then lose their houses, and this affects the schools and everyone here, so we had to do something."
Chiropractor Jeff Stanger said the thousands of dollars he received from the group's fundraiser was a tremendous help to get him started on repairs. He hopes to repay those funds when business picks up so they can be used for another business.
"It was very humbling to have so many people support me," said Stanger, 53.
Sean Sullivan, owner of Swingbellys Beachside BBQ restaurant, said he has a lot of work ahead to bring his business back. "The whole place has to be gutted, the kitchen was wrecked, the floor has to come out -- the whole shebang," said Sullivan, 39.
But he's one of the organizers of the volunteer effort. He believes that one business does not a community make.
"It's what I can do to help," Sullivan said. "If there are no other businesses we won't be around for too long anyway."
Paying It Forward's to-do list:
West End Chriropractic Office
West Elementary School
Being helped now:
J.W. Trainor's bar
Long Island Toy Lending Center for Children With Disabilities
Swingbellys Beachside BBQ restaurant