Otto Lajka had the will to recover

Ever since he opened his first hair salon in 1974, Otto Lajka has been on the move. For nine years, he ran Avanti Hair Salon as a small family operation before opening another store in 1983 at his current location on Hylan Boulevard.

Every seven years or so, Lajka expanded his salon, from an original 1,000 square-foot building to its current space of 5,000 square feet.

He’s a person with a plan, a person who loves the community in which he lives and does business, a person who works hard and gives back to the best of his ability.

In November, Lajka became, like many others on Staten Island, a person deeply affected by Hurricane Sandy.

The salon, located more than a mile from the coastline, was flooded with more than five feet of water. After days of being prohibited from going to the store, Lajka found it in shambles — dirty, full of mud and in need of extensive repair. Every item in the salon that wasn’t seven feet off the ground had to be replaced.

Like many others on Staten Island, Lajka didn’t have flood insurance for his salon. While the store suffered wind damage that would have been covered by his insurance, it wasn’t enough to justify filing a claim and paying his deductible. Grants and FEMA assistance weren’t options.

“When I walked in, it was very upsetting,” he said. “I sat there for about a half hour, going through a kind of grief.”

Lajka had no choice. If he wanted to re-open Avanti Hair Salon, he would have to do it with his own money, with the help of friends, family and the Staten Island community. Volunteers helped the salon’s staff clean the building, removing mud, power washing the building, disinfecting the inside and drying it out. For 15 straight days, from morning to night, the group worked relentlessly to allow the salon to re-open, at least in part, as soon as possible.

“We did pretty well, thanks to the support we got,” Lajka said. “It was an amazing thing to see something like that come together. I’m trying to bring back the memories. I don’t like to think of what happened. I like to think forward. We need to look to tomorrow and see how we can put things together.”

Avanti Hair Salon was one of the first businesses in the region to re-open following the storm. After those 15 days of cleanup, Lajka opened half the store to clients, who were happy to return and support the business. While clients were being served on one half, the other half was being refurbished. Today, the salon is fully operational.

“If I didn’t have family and friends come, I wouldn’t have been able to move forward at all,” Lajka said.

The spirit of Staten Islanders has shone through during the storm’s aftermath, with stories of volunteerism and lending a helping hand abounding everywhere you go. Even those who were affected the most by Sandy have given back in their own special way. On Sunday, Jan. 13, Lajka held a benefit at the salon for Sandy victims, and he hopes to be able to continue to provide such support.

“It’s the greatest feeling in the world to help out others. It’s not about how much you get; it’s the feeling that we were able to give back,” he said. “You see it on TV, you see it in newspapers, but when it hits you, you know the real feeling. Hearing what our people went through, and seeing what they went through…it’s not fair what’s happening on this Island over here, as far as help from anyone.”

Avanti Hair Salon was able to bounce back so quickly because of this community support, and because Lajka’s friends and family were so willing to help. And, much like he’s done for his entire professional life, Lajka isn’t sitting back and relaxing now that he’s back on his feet. He’s planning another expansion to the salon that will allow it to provide a wider array of services and bring it up to date with the newest features.

“Staten Islanders have given me so much, and I want to give as much as I can back to them,” Lajka said. “We have to move forward and give the best we can with the times we have ahead.”