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Friends of Freeport step up for community after Sandy

Freeport resident Bill Walsh, center, a New York

Freeport resident Bill Walsh, center, a New York City firefight and volunteer firefighter for Freeport, out in front of his home where Friends of Freeport an organization whose mission is to get people back into their homes, after weathering Super Storm Sandy are rebuildig his home. Walsh closed on his house on the 13th of October in 2012, days before the storm. (Nov. 23, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

More than a dozen volunteers spent Saturday hammering plywood into bare walls, unfurling barrels of insulation and yanking out dead weeds and bushes to repair the Sandy-damaged home of Freeport's assistant fire chief.

"This means the world to me," said William Walsh, whose new home on West Fourth Street in Freeport was engulfed by 4 feet of water during the October 2012 storm. "I don't know how long it would take me to do all this. It's just priceless."

Insurance covered just a fraction of the roughly $100,000 needed to rebuild, and with limited supplies and manpower, Walsh and his friends could do only so much.

Last month, he turned to Friends of Freeport, a grassroots group that has spent more than a year gutting or assisting in the rebuilding of nearly 120 area homes. The project, which would have cost Walsh roughly $20,000 if he had hired a contractor, is expected to be complete by next weekend.

Freeport resident Rich Cantwell and his wife, Donna, formed the group through Facebook, soliciting volunteers willing to lend a hand to a neighbor in need.

The group has since grown into a registered 501(c)(3) charity with crews of up to 35 workers who work on homes every weekend and a dozen more who help during the week. Local businesses provide some supplies, and the group receives grants and donations. It hosts fundraisers to fill any gap.

"This is friends helping friends; neighbors helping neighbors," said Cantwell, a dispatcher at the Village of Hempstead's Fire Department. "We don't care about your insurance. We just ask what you need and we help."

Cantwell, whose Freeport home escaped major damage from Sandy, said up to 500 village residents are still rebuilding from the storm and need assistance. He expects to continue rebuilding another 275 more homes for at least another year.

Cantwell's crew, which includes local police officers, contractors, firefighters and members of the PTA, all have a connection to Freeport.

Linda Stuerzel, who manages the kitchen at Freeport High School, spends her weekends serving bagels, doughnuts and coffee to volunteers.

"This is my way of giving back to the community," said Stuerzel, whose mother's Freeport home was destroyed in the storm.

Barry Goodman, who had lived in the village for 27 years, travels 21/2 hours to Freeport every weekend from his home in Winona Lakes, Pa., to help rebuild his old neighborhood. "It's still my community," Goodman said. "Once Freeport is in your blood, it's hard to get rid of it."

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