Friends without borders

Freeport group rebuilds home of Baldwin vet, 83


For 35 years, Frank Cesare, of Baldwin, served his country. He is a Korean War veteran who spent time in the Falkland Islands, followed by 15 years as an Army reservist.

Fast forward to last Oct. 29, when Hurricane Sandy barreled through the front door of his home on Eastern Parkway, flooding it with four feet of water and sewage.

“I figured we’d be OK,” said the 83-year-old Cesare. “FEMA gave us nothing,” he added, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, “but I’ve had flood insurance since 1978. I’m a preferred customer with Allstate, insured for $250,000 for flood damage. I got $50,000. They said, ‘Sorry, pal.’ I was on my own.”

The establishment may have let Cesare down, but fortunately, he had friends: the Friends of Freeport, a grass-roots group of Freeport volunteers who have been rebuilding the homes and lives of Sandy victims.

Last Saturday morning, 40 volunteers showed up at Cesare’s house, a sea of red shirts ready to rebuild his home. They insulated and sheetrocked walls, and weeded and cleaned out the garden outside the house. The volunteers — ages 7 to 70 — spent their entire Saturday rebuilding the house, like homesteaders at an old-fashioned barn raising.

“This is our first time venturing outside of Freeport,” explained Rich Cantwell, president of Friends of Freeport. “We’re just doing our thing here, helping a neighbor. We started doing this the day after the storm. Everybody [on the waterfront] was devastated. We had to help. So it was one house after another after another.”

Gail Luksch, of Polk Street in Freeport, one of the volunteers at Cesare’s home, said, “They just came by and said, ‘What can we do to help?’ They picked me up and gave me strength to carry on. Now I’m here to help someone else.”

“That’s the way it works,” said Cantwell. “We have volunteers here who are still out of their homes, but they know everybody is hurting. When we hear that someone needs help, we show up.”

That’s what happened with Cesare. Anne Triomboli, his daughter, said she learned about the Friends of Freeport from a friend at St. Christopher School. “My friend is from Freeport and knew about this group,” Triomboli said. “She told them my dad’s situation. They interviewed him and said they’d be here to help.”

Cesare smiled as he surveyed the work. “Fantastic people,” he said.

Friends of Freeport will be at the Cesare home this weekend as well, to finish what they started. They also picked up a new

volunteer along the way. One of Cesare’s neighbors saw the activity and spontaneously joined the group. “I’ll help,” she said. “We’re neighbors.”

“That’s how this thing works,” said Cantwell. “We’re on our own. This is the only way we’re going to get back on our feet. One house at a time. One neighbor at a time.”