Home repair gift comes at high cost in West Milford
WEST MILFORD – They say when it rains, it pours. For Gwendolyn Bernat, the adage could not be more appropriate.
Bernat, a 56-year-old mother of three, survived a near fatal bout with sepsis following a diagnosis of bi-lateral breast cancer about five years ago. The battle to save her life and the resulting fallout have been hard physically and financially, she said, so much so that the figurative hole in her pocket became a literal hole in her roof.
“It was literally pouring in my house on Saturday,” she said, referencing that afternoon’s downpour.
Gwendolyn Bernat of West Milford talks about the circumstances that led to Roof4Roof of Carlstadt offering her a free roof repair on July 3.
Things were different early Monday afternoon, however. There was not a raincloud in sight and three men were replacing part of the Bernats’ roof. It was the part that had been leaking for months, soaking her mudroom and rendering her electric washer and dryer useless during and after rainstorms.
Bernat’s insurance company denied coverage on the basis it was a wear and tear issue, she said. At 7:30 Monday morning, however, the president and founder of Roof4Roof called to say they were coming by to fix her roof for free. The tarp came off soon after.
“I was in shock, but so excited,” Bernat said. “This means everything to me. This means comfort for my family.”
Chuck Anania, Roof4Roof president and founder, has made a habit out of this sort of work. Anania’s Carlstadt-based business has donated more than $700,000 to help 700 families in the states and abroad with home repairs after gaining inspiration from a trip to Cali, Colombia.
“One of life’s most basic needs is shelter,” Anania said. “Keeping a safe, dry roof over your family’s heads has become increasingly difficult for many homeowners.”
Prior to her 2012 cancer diagnosis, Bernat said fixing a roof would not have been such a trial. She was a social services caseworker for Passaic County before the diagnosis and all it would entail forced her to quit.
Bernat went from earning $80,000 a year to relying on disability checks. Her husband of 22 years, Frank Bernat, also lost income having to act as chauffeur and all-around caregiver for Bernat.
She underwent 28 surgeries.
She said doctors had all but given up after she contracted sepsis, an adverse reaction to infection that impacts otherwise healthy tissues. An experimental antibiotic ultimately ended a 31-day stretch in the hospital that she feared would be fatal.
“They said they would only give me the drug for two weeks,” she said. “At the end of the two weeks, my face blew up. It looked about twice as big, but I was alive so I didn’t care.”
Bernat said she came out of the experience a different person, however. She still likes to garden, as evidenced by her flourishing front-yard plots. But she has to sleep for six hours afterward.
“Cancer zaps you of the person you once were,” she said. “You don’t really survive it. You don’t have the same energy, and you always worry it will come back. But it also changes you in the fact that you appreciate life more.”
Bernat now focuses much of her energy on a not-for-profit called Alma’s Hope Against Hope. Named for her mother, who died from mesothelioma at the age of 56, it provides items such as blank journals and gift cards for gasoline to cancer patients. They need rides to treatment and can use the gift cards to barter for a lift, she said.
“I just want to pay it forward because it’s just a blessing to be here … for my family, for my two girls who need their mother,” she said. “I told my mother that if I survive I’m going to give back. So I’m keeping that promise.
“I think because I give back, Roof4Roof is giving back to me. And I’m ever so thankful for it. It just makes me want to give more when I’m able to.”