Erich B. Sekel of St. Peter's University in Jersey City
Erich B. Sekel of St. Peter's University in Jersey City

For one family in Jersey City’s West Side, life at home was a constant adventure, wondering whether they’d get through the day with all their limbs intact.

Until they were quite literally rescued by Rebuilding Together Jersey City, a nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing neighborhoods, one building at a time, by making essential repairs that allow longtime residents to stay safely in their homes.

Alix Cliophat, his wife, and three children are now doing exactly that in the house on Clinton Avenue they purchased in 2007 after RTJC volunteers completed extensive electrical and plumbing renovations to its two bathrooms and kitchen.

Erich B. Sekel, RTJC board chairman who doubles as associate director of campus ministry for community service at St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, recalled how major structural problems at the house led RTJC skilled and semi-skilled volunteers to spend 40 days, spread over parts of two years, working there.

An initial assessment of the first-floor bathroom, recalled Sekel, revealed that “the floor joists were rotted from constant leaks—I remember putting my foot through one section. And the second-floor bathroom was sinking. The tub looked like something out of a horror movie.”

During 2019, union labor donated hundreds of hours installing new floor beams supporting both bathrooms, gutting the entire second-floor lavatory, putting new fixtures in both, and replacing all the lead piping.

After canceling all work projects in 2020 due to the pandemic, the volunteers returned to the Cliophat’s house last year to deal with a crumbling first-floor kitchen whose floor beams were sinking, Sekel said. “We ripped everything out between the first floor and basement and put in new beams.”

Both floors also got new coats of paint.

“The Cliophats easily got $100,000 worth of work invested in their property for free,” Sekel said.

Sekel credited Joseph Ameruoso of the carpenters local for his Herculean efforts. “Joe put in 35 of the 40 days spent on the project,” he noted.

Cliophat, a 25-year sales representative for Nabisco, said his wife recommended reaching out to RTJC after reading about its work on the web.  “We’re all happy with the job they did,” he said.

So is Rebuilding Together National, the parent chapter of the organization, whose mission is to “make essential repairs” to the properties of residents and nonprofits that have fallen into disrepair or been victimized by natural disasters.

Last fall, RTN honored Sekel as “Volunteer of the Year” among all of its 120 affiliates around the U.S.

“Through Erich’s leadership and ingenuity, especially faced with the challenges the pandemic presented, Rebuilding Together Jersey City was still able to move the mission forward, safely helping those in need,” an RTN citation said.

As Covid-19 spread during 2020, RTN noted, “Eric orchestrated working on fewer locations, carefully directing personnel, and spent more time and resources on those homes to achieve the most-needed, in-depth renovation projects possible….”

Elaborating, Sekel explained that RTJC normally handles 10 to 15 projects spread among the city’s six wards each year—with the work performed by about 150 skilled trades representatives supplemented by some 100 semi-skilled workers from the community.

To be considered for a repair job, people can simply apply to RTJC, Sekel said. Union trades representatives visit a site, determine what work needs to be done and sketch out a budget. “We don’t do roofs, however,” he said, because that type of work needs to be bonded and insured and that type of liability is beyond the group’s fiscal capabilities.

Work projects are typically scheduled for the Saturday after Easter, but much of the year is spent meticulously planning the event, according to Sekel. The Clinton Avenue project was an exception. “Normally we don’t go so in depth but the need was great,” Sekel said.

Given the hurdles posed by the pandemic, the RTJC board opted to cancel all projects scheduled for 2020.

For 2021, however, even with the pandemic still to be reckoned with, RTJC’s board decided to press ahead with repairs to a couple of homes in the city’s West Side. “We couldn’t wait, based on their needs,” Sekel said.

So RTJC shifted tactics, spreading out the work assignments over 15 Saturdays with smaller volunteer groups, all wearing masks. “We spoke to the homeowners in advance, explaining what we wanted to do, and got their approvals,” Sekel added.

This spring, plans call for ramping up the work to include fix-ups to the Camp Liberty/Educational Arts Team site on Pesin Drive and to the basement of the Dr. Lena Edwards Academic Charter School on Bramhall Avenue. The group will also install LED lighting at St. Aloysius Church on West Side Avenue and at several individual homes, according to Sekel.

Sekel traces his initial involvement in RTJC to his high school days in 1997 when he was attending St. Peter’s Preparatory School, also in Jersey City, and he was invited to participate in one of the rehabilitation projects.

“I rejoined [RTJC] in 2010 and I was asked to join the board in 2011-2012,” Sekel recalled. In December 2015, he was named associate director of campus ministry for community service at SPU, and, in that capacity, Sekel has made a point of recruiting university students for the all-volunteer undertaking.

Pointing to his close ties to the Jesuit institution, RTN credited Sekel as “a model of encouragement to students, expanding the culture of service, community engagement and action at the university. His influence is evident in the fact that many of the Rebuilding Together Jersey City board members are his former students.”

On average, Sekel said, “between 40 percent and 50 percent” of the non-skilled community volunteers are drawn from the university’s students and alums.

It was Sekel who kept RTJC going after a majority of its board retired in 2017. “That’s when the affiliate was going to close,” he said. “I felt I knew enough to keep it going, but I had to learn as I went, so I took 2017–2018 off to recruit new [board] members. I reached out to my former students.”

One of those recruits was Ed Daniel, Class of 2014, who is now one of six alums serving on the 12-member RTJC board. Daniel, a social worker, said he’s done a lot of volunteer work in recent years, notably repairs in homes and basements flooded by Hurricane Sandy. “I hope we can continue to give help to those who need it,” he said.

Sekel credited union laborers from Local 164, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; Plumbers Local 24, Carpenters Local 253; Masons Local 27 and Hudson County Building & Construction Trades Council President Patrick Kelleher for their participation.

He also thanked corporate sponsors Provident Bank, Suez and Connell Foley law firm fand individual donors for financial aid. Contributions help pay for construction supplies purchased from Lowe’s Home Improvement.

Anyone interested in securing home repair assistance or serving as volunteers or providing contributions should visit RJTC’s website for more information.

Ron Leir has been a journalist since 1972. That includes a 37-year stint as a reporter, copy reader and assistant editor with The Jersey Journal, followed by a decade as a reporter with The Observer in...