Claire Helfenbein’s Hempstead home is falling apart. There’s a mouse infestation, mildew in the bathroom, floors that are breaking apart, a deteriorating deck, and the roof is leaking.
Her husband, Irving, used to take care of the repairs, she explained, but since he died seven years ago of pancreatic and lung cancer, she has had to keep up the house and repair the damage caused by her autistic teenage son, Jacob. Much of her time, she said, is spent caring for him.
“It’s stuff that I could never do,” Helfenbein said of the home repairs.
Claire, who is in a wheelchair because of a birth defect, also has a daughter in college.
A few months ago, she explained all of this to a social worker at the Genesis School in East Meadow, which Jacob attends, and the social worker recommended that she apply for help from Franklin Square-based Rescuing Families Inc.
The organization was founded in 2016 by Gina and Vincent Centauro, a Franklin Square couple who travel across Long Island, Queens and New Jersey to fix up homes for some of the hundreds of people in need who write them letters every year asking for help. They started the nonprofit, they said, after they noticed some families faced hardships while they were renovating their homes as owners of Truly Unique Designs. Some, Vincent said, could not afford necessary improvements, while others had disabilities and struggled to move around their homes.
“We saw a need for the community that wasn’t being met,” Gina said, “and we felt we needed to step up.”
In June, the organization made Keith Mauro’s Port Jefferson Station home more handicapped-accessible. They made the doors wider for Mauro, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS; added new flooring and a stone fireplace; and made the bathroom wheelchair-accessible. “They made it so that I can get around in my own home,” Mauro said. “So, it meant the world to us.”
The Centauros said they now hope to do the same for the Helfenbein family after seeing firsthand the problems with their house. But first they must raise money to pay for the contractors who will not work for free.
To do so, the Centauros held their second annual Restoring Hope Barbecue last Saturday at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2718 in Franklin Square. It featured food catered by several local businesses, giant Jenga, Connect Four, live music, karaoke, face-painting and magic, and as night fell, a lot of line dancing.
The Centauros needed only a month to set up the event, as they had a great deal of help from volunteers who wanted to aid the cause. Franklin Square resident Terri Callaghan said she got involved to give back to the community.
Douglas King was another of the volunteers. He’s president of Wheels in Motion Consulting, a Central Islip-based organization that seeks to promote the welfare of people with disabilities. “Coming to an event like this is important to help families with disabilities make sure they get what they’re entitled to,” he said. “It makes the families that are getting the help feel like they’re not alone.”
Admission was $25 for adults and $10 for children under 12, and many of the nearly 100 guests put their names in for raffles to further raise money “for the renovations to make [the Helfenbeins’] home livable again,” Vincent said.
The event raised almost $7,000 for the cause, and encouraged others, like Bennet Cinelli, to get involved. Cinelli, of Franklin Square, said that as a contractor himself, he was wary about redoing a home so quickly, but after talking to Gina, he realized that Rescuing Families uses high-quality products for its remodeling projects.
“I know she’s putting together a house that will last,” Cinelli said, and Callaghan added that it is “quality work from quality people.”
As for Claire, she said, she was just happy that the Centauros were willing to do all of this for her family. “This is an amazing group of people,” she said, “and they have a place in heaven waiting for them.”