Meet Our 2015 Welcome Home Project Family: Rich & Anne Cornell

Above All Masonry is excited to introduce our 2015 Welcome Home project recipients, the Cornell family of Massapequa, NY: retired NYPD officer Rich, special education teacher Anne, and their three children, Chris (19), Ryan (16), and Julia (12). 

After accepting nominations from the public and conducting an open vote for the two finalists, the greater Long Island community has selected the Cornell family to receive a complimentary landscape design makeover. Rich and Anne were nominated by their eldest son Chris, who knew his parents needed help after suffering significant losses—twice—after Hurricane Sandy.

This fall, Above All Masonry and our generous partners will help the Cornells rebuild their backyard and restore the outdoor living space they miss so much. Thank you to all who nominated and voted for the Welcome Home recipients this year! We're honored to introduce the Cornells, and share their story:

Rich & Anne, what was your reaction when you learned that Chris had nominated you for the Welcome Home project?

Anne: We were excited that Chris thought to do this. This is very uncommon for a 19-year-old young man, but Chris is perhaps most aware of how much we have lost and has heard me gripe about how we will never have the money to fix up the yard.

Obviously we were excited, but with all the bad karma the past few years, we didn't think anything would come of it.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves, and what led you (Rich) to a life in the police force? Anne, what led you to work in special education?

Anne: From when I was a little girl, I always said I wanted to be a teacher. I always loved children and worked as a camp counselor, babysitter etc. as a teenager. In high school, I volunteered with profoundly delayed children at St. Mary's Hospital for Children, and I loved it. I worked with children with autism all through college, and received my master's degree in Special Education with a concentration in teaching children with autism...and the rest is history. I have worked with students with autism and other significant disabilities since 1986. I truly love what I do, and when my students achieve even the smallest gains, it means so much.

Rich: Working as a police officer for 20 years with the NYPD was never boring! Each day was an adventure, and you get a certain satisfaction knowing that you are there to help and protect people. It's hard work, and I have seen things that no one should see, but I have helped save people too. My training as an officer helped me save my neighbor who was having a heart attack. I just immediately knew what to do, and performed CPR until the paramedics arrived.

Tell us a little bit about your home, and how you came to live there.

Anne: Rich and I both grew up in Queens, and moved to Long Island in 1992. We moved to Massapequa in 2002 from Bellmore. We needed a bigger home, as Rich's mother was moving in with us. We fell in love with the beautiful area and immediately renovated to make room for Mom and updated the house from its original 1960 condition. Massapequa is a great town to raise a family, and we took full advantage of the sports and activities for the kids, the great schools, and the parks and beaches.

What was your experience with Hurricane Sandy like? Did you have to evacuate?

Anne: We thought we were prepared! Having had 2.5 feet of water with Irene, we worked hard to move furniture and items higher then three feet. Chris and Rich put all the furniture on cinder blocks and we moved things to the tops of book cases, before we evacuated to family who live in Garden City.

Many neighbors did not evacuate, and were texting and calling saying there were boats from the fire department coming to rescue them, waves crashing and things everywhere. It was very scary. Our neighbors kept in touch and told us when the water had receded enough to come down the street. We left the younger kids with our family, and Chris, Rich, and I returned home.

When did you return home, what did you find?

Anne: There was still about a foot of water in the house, debris everywhere, furniture floating and upturned, everything covered in mud, even a horseshoe crab in the garage! It was surreal.

Seeing the National Guard and the Red Cross handing out food made the scope of the disaster real. Watching the garbage truck haul away brand new furniture made me cry. But, seeing how friends and neighbors banded together was heartwarming. We smoked a turkey on our BBQ and shared with the neighbors. Friends away from the flood zone took in all the kids from our neighborhood. We all did our best to help each other.

After working on restoration following the hurricane, you received some troubling instructions from FEMA regarding the placement of your home. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience?

Anne: Before we started reconstruction, we spoke to FEMA representatives about mitigation, but they advised not to rush into it, as prices might be gouged after the storm. So, we went ahead and used the flood insurance claim to restore the house. About eight or nine months after Sandy, New York Rising was developed. We were advised that our home was in the 100-year flood plain and we needed to raise the house. While they could not force us to do it, our flood insurance premium was rapidly increasing, and we felt we had to take advantage of the government grant. It has been long and frustrating process with New York Rising, but we are finally moving home after being displaced for a year.

How did (and does) the impact of the hurricane on your home affect your family's daily life?

Anne: Immediately after the storm, the whole community was in shock. We were luckier than some, as we have a high ranch, and our kitchen and three of our bedrooms were above the flood. We were able to live in the house during reconstruction, albeit without heat, hot water or electricity. We traveled from friend to friend to have a hot meal and shower, and the boys stayed with friends.

Little things sometimes got to be overwhelming. At Christmas, we used to go all out and decorate the whole house, but we barely had room to put up the tree. That was hardest on Julia, as she was only nine at the time. Chris lost the most, as his bedroom was downstairs, and he had to sleep in his sister's room or in the living room for months at a time.

Financially, the process has been draining, as the insurance does not cover all the expenses. We have managed to get by, and I have tried not to let the kids be affected by the money issue. While we have given up extras like vacations and eating out, we ave made sure they play all their travel sports, piano lessons, etc. They shouldn't lose out because of Sandy.

Being displaced during this past year has been hard. While we are not far, Julia can't just go play with the kids around the block, and Ryan misses his friends being within biking or walking distance. It has been exhausting making so many trips back and forth to Massapequa for practices and play dates and rushing from work to meet the bus or pick up at school, since the kids can't just walk home .

What is your yard like now?

Anne: The yard is now a disaster: weeds, construction debris and dirt. Due to heavy equipment, the areas around the house are dirt, and everything else is weeds at least three feet high. Some of our plants may have survived, but it's hard to tell.

What are the things you'd most like to change about your yard?

Anne: Get rid of the weeds! We had a pool, but that is gone now, so just grading the area and planting grass and just adding color and flowers again!

What are you looking forward to most about having a landscaping remodel?

Anne: There are so many possibilities I don't know where to start....should we fix the front of the house with stone and plantings or create a place in the yard for some hard-earned relaxation? A firepit with a patio to have some wine sounds fantastic about now!

Anne, Chris specifically mentioned how much you love gardening. Can you tell us how you first learned about gardening, and why you enjoy it?

Anne: My dad and my mom always took pride in our yard growing up in Queens. My dad loved roses and his vegetable garden and lawn. These were the days before gardeners, and he would always spend the nights and weekends mowing, trimming, pruning, and watering. My childhood home was always so colorful with varieties of roses. When my mom retired from teaching at York College, she joined a Garden Club. She would always plant beautiful, colorful flowers, and I remember peonies and dahlias of all colors.

When I became a homeowner, I did the same thing: dahlias, peonies, tulips, clematis (which may have survived), and Montauk daisies in addition to annuals were always in the yard and on the deck. My mom loved camellias, as they represent love—true love for red camellias—in a poem she wrote for my dad, and white camellias which convey adoration and perfection. They are used to express love in many forms; for example, the love of a parent for a child. She requested that my brother and I plant a camellia bush to remember her when she passed away in 2012, but low and behold...camellias don't like salt water.

Chris, how did you hear about the Welcome Home project? What prompted you to nominate your parents?

Chris: I saw it on Facebook and figured I would give it a try! Mom is always saying how we couldn't plant this year cause we are in a rental, and how there was going to be no money to fix the yard, so I figured it couldn't hurt to try.

What are you looking forward to most about having a landscaping remodel?

Chris: I just want to get home and have the house and yard be nice again. I know I am away at college now, but it will be great to come back for Thanksgiving and go back to my own house with a cool yard. I hope we can get a fire pit or fire place and patio so I can hang out with my friends. I haven't had a place to hang with my friends in a while.

ulia and Ryan, what did you think when you heard your parents had won the Welcome Home nomination this year?

Ryan: I was excited and glad that something good was happening! I got a lot of my friends to vote, so I am glad they did.

Julia: I told all my friends at camp and they told friends to vote. Kids I didn't know were saying "I voted for your family!" I am glad we won—it's exciting.

What are you looking forward to most about having a landscaping remodel?

Ryan: I just want a nice yard that doesn't look disgusting like it does now. Julia says since she can't have the pool anymore, she wants lots of grass so she can practice soccer, and maybe a fire pit to make s'mores.

Our family-owned business here at Above All Masonry is honored to give a landscape design makeover to Rich and Anne, who have spent decades serving the community, and their kids, who have been missing the stability of their childhood home. Deepest thanks to our partners in this special project: Unilock of Brewster, NY and Astro Masonry & Supply of Deer Park, NY.