With a box of doughnuts on the table for everyone to share, home improvement volunteers roamed in and out of West End resident Liz Treston’s newly installed storm door on Nov. 29 as she and her service dog, Finn, sat in the center of her living room.
A group of people from Rebuilding Together Long Island, an organization that performs home repairs for people who are struggling financially, visited Treston at her Wyoming Avenue home to paint the living room walls, landscape the backyard and install adapters where there were wheelchair obstacles.
Like many, Treston — who has a spinal cord injury and requires a wheelchair-accessible home — was displaced after Hurricane Sandy’s floodwaters rushed into her house and destroyed her belongings.
After moving from rental to rental while trying to find a contractor to rebuild and elevate her home, Treston, the Long Beach Herald’s 2018 Person of the Year, found someone in 2016 whom she said took almost $200,000 of NY Rising funds and her own money and abandoned the project, leaving her house unfinished and uninhabitable.
Treston, 57, later found another contractor to elevate her home, and in the spring, a group of local residents banded together to help their friend and neighbor finally return home. They hosted a fundraiser, rebuilt parts of the home and equipped it with accessibility features for Treston.
“Liz has proven she is not intimidated by barriers or challenges,” said Sam Pinto, school board trustee and president of the Eastholme Civic Association. “As a volunteer, she has done more advocacy than many elected officials and professionals. The spirit in her to help others motivated the community to come together and help her with her house.”
Rather than letting her challenges consume her, they galvanized her.
Known around town as an advocate for people with disabilities as well as those who have struggled with challenges after Sandy, Treston has been instrumental in assisting her fellow neighbors through their hardships, despite facing her own.
A few months after Sandy, Treston launched a local chapter of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, called Long Beach Community Organizations Active in Disasters, a group that assists residents after natural disasters have left them reeling. Through this group, she has hosted public forums on how to navigate the notoriously challenging NY Rising program, aggregated information and distributed resources to help people with the recovery process.
“Liz has proven herself to be a compassionate and effective leader,” County Legislator Denise Ford, who represents Long Beach, said. “She has stepped up for so many others to enable her to fight as hard as she could for each and every person who was severely impacted by Sandy, despite the fact that she, herself, has suffered from the loss of her home.”
As the chairwoman of LB COAD, Treston has kept the pressure on elected officials to address the issues of contractor fraud, looming NY Rising deadlines and several other issues — which many Sandy victims are still struggling with. In the spring, Nassau County Office of Consumer Affairs Commissioner Gregory May said his office received more than 185 complaints related to Sandy contractors.
She has also kept officials on the ball as NY Rising deadlines loom. According to the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, which administers the program, mortgage payments made by interim mortgage assistant applicants after Dec. 31 would not be reimbursed. Applicants who are repairing or elevating must have their houses in the air by Jan. 1.
“There are 300 families losing IMA at the end of the month,” Treston said.
On Dec. 21, Treston said she was barred from entering an event at the MLK Center at which Gov. Andrew Cuomo was handing out toys. She said she tried to attend the event to see if Cuomo would make any announcements about relief efforts or deadline extensions.*
Treston, representing LB COAD, co-hosted a forum earlier this year on how to address contractor fraud with Ford and State Assemblywoman Melissa Miller, of Atlantic Beach.
“She actively supports an entire city through her work with the LB COAD, all the while struggling with her own recovery,” said Canals resident Kevin Reilly, who sits on the COAD board. “I know for a fact that, even now, not a single day goes by without her actively trying to get some other Sandy family home. She is there, in the background, advocating for all of us. As a city, we are all better for her efforts.”
“[I] want everyone to be prepared, no matter what,” Treston said, emphasizing a need to be proactive in emergency situations. “That’s part of what COAD does — it tries to bring the community together before an event or an emergency. That’s what COAD will continue to work on, in collaboration with our public officials, to ensure that our families get home and to ensure that they are prepared for any disaster and emergency in our future on the barrier island.”
In addition to her efforts to assist her neighbors in getting back on their feet after Sandy, Treston has advocated for “beach access for all” for close to a decade. Last year, she criticized city officials for what she described as a slow rollout and lack of public information about the locations of the city’s Mobi-Mats, or blue, non-slip, roll-up surfaces that help elderly and disabled beachgoers navigate the sand. Many residents voiced concerns about the mats, saying that they were not available on enough beaches and did not stretch close enough to the water.
“Liz is someone that is always thinking about how to help others,” said City Councilman and West End resident John Bendo. “Through LB COAD, she hosted numerous forums for homeowners impacted by Superstorm Sandy and established and moderates an online forum where people can give various items to others in need. She has also been a consistent advocate for accessibility issues. Liz embodies the spirit of community, and I am proud to know her.”
Many of her colleagues and friends pointed out her altruistic qualities.
“She is truly the most selfless person you will ever encounter in your lifetime,” said Treston’s friend, Norah Egan. “She has a hard time accepting assistance for herself, as she never puts herself first.”
While she and her neighbors have made significant progress to rebuild both their houses and their broken spirits after Sandy, Treston acknowledged that there is still a ways to go, and she intends to keep fighting until everyone returns safely home.
“Liz Treston is a truly special person,“ Miller said. “Everything she does is with other people in mind — a genuine advocate. She shows up again and again to fight for what’s right. I am proud to fight with her!“
“Through her tenacity and compassion, Liz Treston embodies the spirit of Long Beach,” State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a city resident, said. “Liz cares deeply about her neighbors, and her humanity is reflected through her extensive work in each corner of the community. We are truly blessed to have Liz as part of our lives in Long Beach, and I can think of no one more deserving of this recognition.“
*Editor’s note: A spokeswoman from Gov. Cuomo’s office maintains that Treston was not barred from what was described as a private event for children and that Cuomo’s aides had agreed to speak to her inside the MLK Center and after the event.