When Joanna Marino organized a cleanup of Cattus Island Park in Toms River, she worried the only volunteers who might show up would be her own family.
But this past Saturday, more than 250 volunteers donated their time to remove debris from the Ocean County park that had been ravaged by Hurricane Sandy.
"The volunteers come from every background you can think of," said Marino, the AmeriCorps Watershed Ambassador for the Barnegat Bay area.
Marino has devoted a year of service to the watershed management area, conducting classroom programs for school students and organizes events like the Cattus Island cleanup day.
"There are groups of people from the Barnegat Bay Partnership, NJDEP, Environment New Jersey, and Jersey Cares, along with several Girl Scouts, and a group of students from the MATES school. A majority of the volunteers are just people who love Cattus Island Park, have been coming here all their lives, and want to see it opened as quickly as possible."
Shannon Taylor, a volunteer from Philadelphia, signed up for the cleanup through the Jersey Cares website.
"I grew up coming to Seaside Heights and my uncle ran the rides on the boardwalk, so I wanted to give back," she said.
Stacey Michelman of Beachwood brought her two children to the cleanup. Her family moved to Ocean County in August to be closer to the shore. She had been coming down to Seaside Heights and Island Beach State Park throughout her life.
"With this happening, I felt like it was taken away," said Michelman. "When I saw the cleanup on Facebook, it seemed like the right thing to do."
Most of the debris collected and piled up for disposal was wood, Styrofoam, assorted plastic outdoor furniture, flower pots and fishing bobbers that had been carried by surging ocean water from homes across the bay. The volunteers were informed that a contest was going on for the most unusual item recovered, with the winner earning four passes to Jenkinson's Aquarium.
Two boys, Jake Devries and Jeffrey Bolka of Bridgewater, found what appeared to be a message in a bottle, and put their names in the running for the tickets. But, while that was a nice bonus, the boys said they had come to work.
"I felt bad for the community," said Bolka. "There was trash all over the place. I wanted to help."
Other assorted items washed up in the park during the hurricane were a wooden pelican, sliding glass doors in their frames, two personal watercraft, a deck with a lighting fixture still attached, a commercial freezer and a Seaside Park beach sign.
Park Naturalist Christopher Claus, who has worked at the park since 1981, said he arrived on the scene at 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, October 30 to find the park under several feet of water. In the written history of the area, he said that had never happened before.
"The park is a tidal marsh that acts as a filter — that's why a marsh is so important," Claus said. "If this wasn't here, the debris would still be floating in the bay causing more problems."
Marino said the park lost most of its wooden boardwalks on the trails, hundreds of trees, most of its picnic tables and the Cooper Environmental Center was flooded and had to be gutted.
Claus said some park vehicles were destroyed in the flooding, including their four wheel all-terrain vehicle, which he said is integral to everything they do at the park. A local business offered to give the park a discount to replace it, but the cost still will be several thousand dollars. He said they are looking for sponsorship to assist in buying the vehicle.
As for the park's trees and plants, Claus said it could take a couple of years to determine how badly they were affected. Claus was overwhelmed by the turnout for the cleanup and praised his staff who has been working seven days a week, giving their own time to restore the park.
With the help of a legion of faithful volunteers, the park reopened with a few trails a month after the storm and Claus said he's hoping to have the park 80 to 90 percent open by spring.
"This is a special place for folks," he said. "They're looking to come back and relax. They appreciate the park as therapy."