Kindness restores Christmas spirit for families still displaced by superstorm Sandy

SEAFORD, N.Y. The McCaffrey trailer has plenty of Christmas spirit. It's draped with colorful lights and stockings decorate the walls. A Christmas tree glows in the corner.

Still, it didn't feel quite like home. Their house in Seaford, Long Island, used to be filled with photographs of family and friends. Nearly two months after superstorm Sandy, it's completely gutted and littered with leftover mementos too soggy to save; the pictures destroyed or mostly covered in mold.

One of those photos was of Edith and her brother, who died a couple of years ago from cystic fibrosis. She still carries his ashes in a vial around her neck.

"Before he died, he was very, very sick," McCaffrey said. "I have pictures of him as I want to remember him -- not as a very sick person. To see mold growing on them and to see them being destroyed is indescribable ... Mold doesn't belong near him, you know?"

Most of the more than 8 million people affected by superstorm Sandy have moved on and returned to living their normal lives. Power was restored long ago, tree branches have been cleared. But many of those who experienced the worst of the storm -- especially parts of Long Island and New Jersey -- find themselves displaced for the holidays with no idea of when they can move back home. Most of their possessions are destroyed.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have asked for about $60.4 billion in federal aid from the government, which the Senate is set to vote on later this week. For families like McCaffrey's, however, there's not much to do but continue to fill out mountains of paperwork and wait for rebuilding. Their situation isn't going to change in time for Christmas.

That's where Good Samaritans have stepped in. Melanie Wesslock, a wedding photographer living in Manhattan, wanted to brighten the holiday spirit of those who have been displaced from their homes by Sandy. The question was: How? There are already so many toy drives and she wanted to somehow use her photography skills. But these families weren't really in the portrait-taking spirit.

Wesslock soon thought of her longtime friend McCaffrey and the damaged picture of her brother.

"Of all of the things that they lost it was this picture that made her cry. That for me was heartbreaking," Wesslock said.

McCaffrey's husband, Andrew, snuck the framed photograph to her while the families were visiting Wesslock's country home in Cornwallville, in upstate New York. The digital print was stuck to the glass, and parts of the ink had come off.

A few days before Christmas, Wesslock visited McCaffrey and surprised her with the restored picture. It brought tears to her eyes.

"When I first came home that morning, I really thought there is no God and if there is, he hates me," McCaffrey said. "And through kindness and the generosity and the selflessness that I have seen from people who just want to help, especially my friend -- God showed up. It has a value that I'll hold on to for the rest of my life."

Now, Wesslock is offering free services to help restore other people's photos that have been ruined by superstorm Sandy.

"I'm eager to do this for other people. And I'm sure there are other photographers who would like to do it to. Because photographers understand the value and importance," Wesslock said.

Despite all the destruction, a number of inspiring stories of selflessness have come out during the holidays of people finding their own ways to help.

McCaffrey's neighbor, Mary-Kate Tischler -- a lawyer for CBS -- created a toy drive called "Steal Christmas Back" with a group of friends for families in Long Island. Thirteen thousand dollars worth of merchandise was purchased for 15 families in the course of nine days using a registry on, she said.

These families don't have "money because it's all being diverted to getting back to normal ... we want to make Christmas as normal as possible," Tischler said.

Many people still displaced for the holidays have also said they are thankful that material things, no matter how much the sentimental value, can be replaced. Maureen Flaherty, a sister of a New York firefighter who helped organized a drive for children who lost toys in the storm (they had 2,500 toys and $7,000 in donations by Thursday), said she heard a lot of firefighters express that sentiment.

"The wife is out in Breezy Point, the husband is [elsewhere] in Queens. A lot of them aren't in their house. But what happened in Connecticut put some things in perspective," she said, referring to the school shooting in Newtown. "It's all material things [lost in the storm]. That's what [the firefighters] started to say. They say, 'you know what, Maureen, my kids are okay."

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    Sara Dover is an associate news editor for