In Her Shoes: Jeanette Van Houten

Photo by Patti Sapone/The Star Ledger

With so many women out there making humanitarian efforts, it’s difficult to identify just one-something I am realizing will be my biggest challenge as I continue to post in this category.  Though “In Her Shoes” was intended to showcase female humanitarians and philanthropists in all walks of life, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I would be remiss to overlook the efforts being put forth by those selflessly offering assistance to the victims of this devastating storm.

As I scanned various newspapers, online articles, blog posts and Twitter feeds, I thought about how many individuals-celebrities and pedestrians alike, have really stepped up to lend a helping hand.  I wondered, “Should I feature a fashion forward celebrity who decided to get their hands dirty?”  Then my human skepticism got the better of me, and I worried that their actions might not be in vain, but instead to capitalize on the face time connected with their good deeds (sorry for my cynicism celebs).  Just then, I came across an article featured in the Star Ledger that peaked my interest.  It was entitled “Woman Rescues Memories on Union Beach”.

The woman’s name is Jeanette Van Houten.  She is not a millionaire or a celebrity.  She is not handing out supplies from the Red Cross, or helping to collect canned goods at her local shelter.  She is merely a citizen of Union Beach and a victim of Hurricane Sandy, but to many, she is a godsend.

The night Sandy touched down, swells of water violently crashed through windows, and doors, demolished walls and for some, washed away their entire existence.  Between 200 and 300 homes were knocked off their foundations or deemed unlivable, while more than 100 houses went missing entirely.

The homes that remained, experienced extreme flooding, with water cresting up to eight feet high.  As the water finally withdrew, it swallowed mail, valuables, possessions and, quite possibly worst of all, memories.  Photos and albums that captured milestone events and lifelong friendships had vanished.  There were no longer reminders of the birth of a first grandchild, first days of school or family gatherings.

Once the hurricane had passed and the water had receded, Van Houten took a walk on a nearby, mangled beach where she stumbled upon a photograph.  As fate would have it, it was a photograph of her niece Alexandra.  She recalled that it hung on the refrigerator of a relative who lived nearby.  It was a painful reminder of the reality of the devastation that surrounded her.

Since that day, Van Houten has dedicated her time to scouring beaches, backyards and marshes, rescuing more than 500 photographs spanning decades.  The photographs, belonging to her neighbors, documented joyful events such as graduations, weddings, family vacations and first homes.  Many of which were the same homes at Sandy’s mercy the night of the storm.

With each muddy photograph or album Van Houten recovers, another memory unfolds.  After she takes hours to wipe clean, dry out, and scan each photograph, she posts it on Facebook with hopes of reuniting it with its owner.  (

For so many, these photographs are the only remainder of happier times before Sandy wreaked havoc on their lives.  As Van Houten told Tom Dinges from The Star Ledger, “It’s a little piece of their past, something they can hold on to.  FEMA can’t take it away, the building inspector can’t…Mother Nature can try, but it can come back to us.”

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