James Butler drove through Union Beach in shock the day after Sandy left the Bayshore community in shambles.
As he took in the damage, he saw what he thought might be an artificial Christmas Tree jutting out of the mounds of debris and muck near the intersection of Jersey Avenue and Shore Drive.
A few days passed before he mentioned on his private Facebook account that he was thinking about setting it up the next time he drove by. His friends encouraged him to do so, but it wasn't until he experienced the power of hope that he set up the tree.
"I was gutting a widow's house that I know. She had lived there for thirty or forty years and she was going through belongings of her husband who passed away many years ago. It was just tough," he said. "There was a moment, standing in that empty, cold house and it hit me. I said, 'Wow. I can't believe this happened.'"
The woman he was helping looked at him and reminded him that it would be a long road but it in the end, it would be alright.
"Just that little bit of hope, just that little dose that you don't know how things are going to be OK, but they are going to be," he said. "Everybody has work to do and everybody is busy, but I kind of felt if you don't have some kind of spark that things with somehow be OK, it's hard to get it done."
Under the blanket of night, Butler returned to the intersection and anonymously set up the soggy tree.
"I took the poster board and marker and I was going to say, 'Feel free to add an ornament.' But people needed more than that," he said.
The first sign he placed at the tree read, "Dear Sandy, You can't wash away hope. You only watered it so more hope can grow. Signed, 'Union' Beach."
And grow it did.
Residents and volunteers started noticing the Union Beach Hope Tree, as it has become known, and slowly but surely the number of ornaments decorating the tree blossomed.
Butler started an anonymous Facebook account for the tree, inviting people to post photos of their ornaments and the stories behind them. One ornament, which is a Santa dressed in a police uniform with a dalmatian reads, "In Loving Memory of Our Son - Bobby Reinecke." A comment under the photo tells the story of a retired Hazlet police officer who passed away fourteen years ago.
"[My mom] usually puts this on her tree, but thought it would be better fit on the Tree of Hope," the commenter wrote.
Some ornaments carried messages such as "Union Beach Strong" and "Hope" while others had family names written on them with permanent marker. Ornaments have even been mailed from as far as Utah. Butler, however, can't pick a favorite.
"I was just overwhelmed with the number of ornaments," he said. "All of the green foam ornaments were done by a class displaced from Memorial School. The class wanted to do ornaments and bring them. Those are really special because they are done by kids who want to be in their own school."
Butler also began receiving gift cards in the mail. He grabbed Christmas cards, scribbled messages of hope inside, and started slipping them anonymously to those in need.
"I like the idea that this type of message is spreading," he said.
For Butler, setting up the tree was the least he could do for the community.
"It's a special place and I'm glad now that it's an image of Union Beach that's more about the people rather than the damaged houses. That's just stuff. It's more about the residents and the people that for me, make Union Beach special."
Editor's note: Santa will visit the Union Beach Hope Tree from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 16. A professional photographer will take photos for families free of charge and upload them to a shared website, Butler explained.