A few weeks back, I wrote the first part of helping out back in Staten Island
I called it Part I which means, of course, there will be at least a sequel.
Well, it’s been a rough few weeks healthwise in our household so my apologies for the hold up on Part II.
It turns out that my synagogue’s education director in Rochester is childhood friends with David Sorkin, the executive director of the JCC in Staten Island. Our synagogue was collecting donations for Sandy victims in Staten Island. Their only problem: how were they going to deliver the goods?
So, in addition to helping out the fine volunteers at Guyon Rescue, with the help of my husband’s colleagues at General Motors, we borrowed the biggest Suburban you’d ever lay your eyes on and filled it with the gently used and new toys, books, art supplies and toiletries to be distributed through the Bernikow Jewish Community Center of Staten Island.
When I returned home to Rochester, Temple Beth El received the following letter from the JCC in thanks for our donation:
Dear Families of Temple Beth El,
Thank you very much for the toys, books, games and gifts that you collected for the children of our community who have suffered great losses from Hurricane Sandy. Also, special thanks to Stacy Gittleman and family for delivering supplies to the JCC.
As fate would have it, we received a call on Monday morning from a day care center that experienced damage from the storm and they were seeking replacement supplies. In addition, we sent some of the supplies to one of the shelters that are housing families. They were setting up a play room for the children, and your donations helped to create a warm and welcoming space in an otherwise bare and sterile environment. Some of these same children received the cards that were made by the children at your school.
Most of all, we must tell you that your acts of kindness will be remembered by all involved long after these families return to their homes and their lives get back to normal. …..
Thank you again to all my Rochester friends, neighbors and congregants who filled bins and my garage with donations that we brought down to Staten Island. I just wanted to share this letter with you to know how much it was appreciated.
Over my Christmas vacation, I spent hours on a cold floor in Staten Island rolling black plastic contractor bags into bundles of ten.
On my knees, I wrestled with the bags as a camper would a slippery sleeping bag and secured them together with a rubber band. Though this job seemed minor and menial in the scope of helping in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, to someone else who needed those bags to clean up whatever was left of their house, it might mean a lot.
As I worked, a steady stream of volunteers flitted in an out, stocking shelves as well as dropping off supplies. One woman who seemed somewhat in charge said she had volunteered at the Post every single day since the storm hit. Other shelters were closing on the Island and this leading volunteer feared that already, the rest of the world was forgetting what happened here.
She’s the one who needed those contractor bags bundled.
And she needed me to divide up other supplies like steel wool pads with those tiny pods of dish soap.
And she had socks that needed sorting and baby food inspected for expiration dates. My three kids got on that job.
At Guyon Rescue, there is no need for volunteers to make a reservation. There are no shifts. No training videos or marketing messages like other food pantries where my family has volunteered. You just show up and say you want to help. And they put you right to work.
Guyon Rescue is not a shelter, exactly. No one sleeps there. But to the many neighbors in this devastated area of Staten Island, Guyon Rescue has become a vital resource for short-term help since Hurricane Sandy.
Guyon Rescue is an all-volunteer grassroots network of workers and donors that have set up camp in a VFW Lodge around the corner from my childhood home, across the street from so many homes damaged and destroyed. Two months after the storm, you would not believe how people are still living unless you walk the streets here for yourself.
My husband and I also worked outside. With numbed fingers, we scrubbed out a donated refrigerator until the shelves were clean enough to eat from. We dried off equipment and supplies in a make-shift outdoor kitchen sheltered only by a tattered, tarp roof. Many of those preparing meals lived in the neighborhood and could tell stories of the storm surge. Of how many feet of water was in their basement. Or up to the ground floor. In the aisles of the food pantry, one woman collecting goods after she showed her FEMA card at the door told me how she swam out of her house.
It was Christmas Day, and soon, many who still had no power – or were camped out in cars near the remains of their property – would be coming to the post for a hot lunch.
At night, just a quarter mile from Guyon Rescue, my husband and I slept in my parent’s basement on an air mattress. It’s been two months since the storm and the basement looks back to normal. Except they lost most of their furniture when it became flooded with nearly four feet of water.
Now, don’t you go taking out any tiny violins for me or my family. We are the lucky ones.
Over my Christmas vacation to New York city, I also saw the Scream,
and Starry Night
We dined on the finest hot dogs and kinishes a New York City street vendor could offer.
And of course, we visited the tree in Rockefeller Center.
But if you ask me what was the best – the BEST part of my Christmas vacation back to New York City, it was volunteering with the good people at Guyon Rescue.
Want to make a difference in Staten Island with Guyon Rescue? Keep updated by following them on Facebook here. Because the recovery is not over.
In Staten Island, it’s only getting started.
The news from Staten Island, it’s not all bad.
For the most part, everything seems – SEEMS – like it’s back to normal after Sandy, the worst storm in Staten Island’s 300-year history.
The stores are hopping with Christmas shoppers.
The streets are typically jammed with traffic.
The noisy holiday revelry in local restaurants with present opening, reindeer antler wearing patrons lay on an extra surreal layer to this island that everything is okay.
Last night, my husband and I ate at Euro-trendy Alor Cafe. As we dined on crepes and roasted Barramundi and sipped our Riesling and Merlot, we listened to a trio of flamenco guitarists:
All this normalcy takes place above “the Boulevard.”
Drive below the Boulevard, in the neighborhood where I grew up and my parents still live, things get strange.
Everywhere, there are subtle and not so subtle reminders of how Sandy reaffirmed for many Staten Islanders why the Island’s South Shore has the dubious distinction for being named “Zone A.”
First, you notice the inspection postings that dot a front window on nearly every residence:
Then, there are the police cars that are out on nearly every corner. All day and all night:
And on the other side of the field, some more harsh evidence of Sandy:
On the other side of my childhood neighborhood are the eclectic bungalow-lined streets of Cedar Grove. Though I didn’t know anyone who lived here, I am thankful for the peacefulness these streets offered me in my teen years. These are the streets where I felt safe riding my bicycle. Many of these streets now have RED inspection stickers which mean that most of these houses are no longer safe to inhabit.
Even the neighborhoods makeshift 9/11 memorial had been destroyed by the storm surge:
As I walked these streets in the low December sun, I thought to myself: Am I a disaster tourist? Am I just a gawker?
No. No I’m not.
I couldn’t bring myself to take photos of the most badly damaged homes. The ones reduced to rubble. I felt by taking photos of these homes, I would be just be further violating the homeowner’s dignity. FOX news and CNN took photos of the worst, only to chase the next big news story and forget about this place just weeks later.
In this tucked-away corner of Staten Island, I’m not a tourist, though I no longer live here. I want to show the world these secret streets, to show them in their continued state of misery. Even though the media has moved on.
Don’t forget this strong and dignified neighborhood, however modest their homes.
Still there are signs of hope. This beautiful Spanish-mission styled church still stands:
Outside of a makeshift relief center where residents can get food, drinks and even Christmas gifts, there is this tree, with a sign of hope and resilience:
Imagine being a kid, who, on top of losing all your favorite stuff, you’ve lost your home too.
Imagine being a mom trying to cope with all that loss. And at the same time, trying to get through all that red tape of filing claims with insurance companies and FEMA.
A few small things, delivered from up north, just might brighten your day. Even if it’s just a new bottle of berry red nail polish.
A few weeks ago, Susan Bernstein, Director of Education for Temple Beth El in Rochester, told me she had been in touch with an old friend in Staten Island. That friend, David Sorkin, happens to be Director of the Bernikow Jewish Community Center in Staten Island.
The two are collecting “stuff” – books, toys, crafts, games, and other small luxuries – for those who have lost everything on Staten Island. The “stuff” will be distributed to hundreds of clients of the JCC now living in shelters throughout Staten Island. These families, some of them living on the brink of poverty even before the storm, just need some sense of normalcy. It’s not much. Toys, books and beauty products may be just a small diversion as these families grapple with long-term struggle of rebuilding their lives and homes.
The only challenge – Rochester and Staten Island are about 350 miles apart.
Susan then asked my husband and I if we had room in our car to drive the donations to Staten Island.
Now, packing a family of five for a car trip is no small task. The family SUV will be crammed with suitcases, bookbags, snacks for the road, and don’t forget my son’s guitar. Then, there are those growing bodies that used to fit so compactly in an infant seat. Those ever-growing lanky teen and tween legs have taken up the room we once used to stow away all the extras.
No, I have no room in my car. But I’ll happily take all the stuff anyway. Happily.
There is all the room in my heart for my ravished hometown, Staten Island. I have seen the photos and have been following any speck of news from my hometown.
I can’t wait to go home. I know that seeing the devastation with my own eyes is going to be really hard.
In my phone conversation with Sorkin, he asked me to imagine a 4-foot storm surge reaching all the way up to Hylan Blvd. My brain just can’t process. All those businesses, many of them still not up and running.
Since Sandy hit, all I have wanted to do was go home and help.
So, I thank Susan for getting this project started with the JCC of Staten Island. I thank my rabbi, Sara Friedson-King, for letting me make an appeal to the congregation during Shabbat morning services. And I thank my Temple Beth El family for all the donations that will truly make someone’s day a bit brighter.
So far, in addition to the donations in the above photo, there is also an entire barrel of donations waiting for me at synagogue.
I’m putting a hitch on the family car. Renting a U-Haul. Where there is a will there is a way.
Staten Island, don’t worry, I’m coming home to help.
Here is my column that appeared online in this week’s D&C, plus a little bit more that was shaved off. I’m still thinking of all of you in Staten Island, Queens, and on the Shore
When Anderson Cooper shows up to cover a natural disaster in your old neighborhood, it must be bad. The CNN correspondent who was on the ground reporting the likes of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the earthquake in Haiti walked the streets of my Staten Island childhood. He put the spotlight on the remains of bungalow homes that lined the quiet streets where I rode my bicycle. He interviewed people as they shivered waiting to sign up for FEMA assistance in a field where my brother played soccer.
For me and many other Rochesterians with ties to downstate New York and New Jersey, to say that Sandy hit home is a huge understatement. Carole Diamond Frankel of Brighton also took in the scenes of her devastated hometowns of Oceanside and Long Beach with a heavy heart. She wished she could physically be there to help but did what she could from afar.
“I can’t stop thinking about it,” she said, as she kept updated with friends through Facebook and email. Within days, she coordinated her own collections of clothing and supplies, which she then drove to the Sea Breeze Volunteer Fire Association in Irondequoit. Her collection melded into the hundreds of bags and boxes of other donations given from the Rochester community.
I want to personally thank this organization, especially April Handel, the associations’ president, and volunteer Garrett Bastuk. They drove a 26-foot truck to affected sections of New York. One such collection center is hosted by a Staten Island church where I had fond memories of making “Shrinky-Dink” key chains and other crafts in a summer day camp program. This relief center is so close to my parents’ home that they recently walked there to pick up batteries for their flashlights and bleach to clean out their flooded basement.
Another group of families from Brighton and Pittsford with downstate roots have also banded together to help with a bagel breakfast fundraiser called “Sand-Aid” taking place this Sunday, Nov. 18. For a donation of $15, patrons will be treated this Sunday morning to Bruegger’s
Bagels, cream cheese, fruit and the Sunday’s Democrat & Chronicle to be picked up in Pittsford Plaza. For $20, breakfast will be delivered within a 10-mile radius of Pittsford Plaza. All funds will be donated to The Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City. This is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization giving long and short-term hurricane relief and restoration to the worst affected areas.
“My cousin in Hoboken jokes that he now has two pools: one in his basement and one that used to be his backyard,” said Pittsford’s Phil Schaff, whose three children have actively publicized the fundraiser. Schaff’s parents, both in their 80’s, have also endured days with no power or heat in East Brunswick, N.J.
The fundraiser generated such a large response that there may be a second Sand-Aid bagel breakfast in the near future. If you would like to have a Sunday bagel breakfast delivered to you as a thanks for contributing to Sandy relief, please email firstname.lastname@example.org to be included.
Disasters like Sandy magnify the significance of Thanksgiving. It is not about Black Friday shopping or football games but gratitude for life’s most basic comforts of a warm home and supportive circles of family, friends, and neighbors. In this spirit of coming together, the Victor Parks and Recreation Department has planned its annual Senior Thanksgiving potluck lunch for noon on Wednesday, Nov. 21 at the Victor Parks and Recreation building, 1290 Blossom Drive. For more information, go to www.victorny.org or call 742-0140
Contact Stacy Gittleman at email@example.com with news and notable people from eastside towns.
If You Go
What: Town of Victor Senior Potluck Luncheon
When: noon Wednesday, Nov. 21
Where: Victor Parks and Recreation building, 1290 Blossom Drive, Victor
Information: $1 fee. Bring a dish to pass. To register with the dish you are bringing to pass, go to www.victorny.org or call 742-0140
Saturday night, the night my parents went to a double wake for two Staten Islanders who drowned in their basement when the ocean came in, my faith was totally shaken.
I’m normally a person pretty strong in my faith, pretty sure that God has a plan and we can’t understand it. I pride myself in holding strong to my Jewish heritage and encourage my students to do the same.
But the other night, if just for a few hours, I gave up.
I went to bed in a dark place, filled with the images of helpless cold people from the neighborhoods of my childhood. I went to bed angry, completely pissed off at God. God, I thought, didn’t you promise to Noah never to destroy the earth again by flood? What was that about? Why do we humans have to see floods over and over again? How am I supposed to get up and teach my students tomorrow about your blessings, for blessing us with everything we need like food and shelter when there are people like my parents who are still without power and warmth in their own homes? When there is a wife who has lost a twin son and her husband AND her home in one single wave?
Lesson learned: when you go do bed angry at God, you don’t receive the blessing of sleep.
The next morning was Sunday. The sun shone brightly. Even when you can’t see it, there is the sun.
In New York City, it was Marathon Sunday. Fortunately, Mayor Bloomberg came to his senses and cancelled the marathon, but not before thousands of marathoners traveled just to be stuck and cold in the big apple. For me, it was off to teach Hebrew school, which opens each week with me helping to lead a tefilah,or prayer service, for students 7th grade and up.
Before going to bed, I expressed my very dark thoughts about prayer and God very honestly to my boss.I wasn’t feeling very thankful to God after days of looking at the destruction, and learning how close death hit to home.
Thankfully, she sent me some reinforcement. The rabbi of the temple Sunday morning addressed the kids so thoughtfully and patiently. She told us, yes, we can still feel blessed by God for God’s daily miracles: for giving us the ability to stand, to see, for giving us food and clothing. We do not despair or feel guilty for the blessings we have but instead use tefilah, to inspire us to help others in crisis. Just being together in a room of people joining together makes you realize you are not alone in sadness, and praying together can lead to hopefulness and action.
That afternoon I got a call from mom. She was overwhelmed with gratitude. She said Angels came to Staten Island that day. Would-be marathon runners took the ferry and ran around the island.
Thousands of them took to the streets, knocked on doors and started helping out and cleaning out. Several of them descended at my parents house and emptied the contents of my parent’s waterlogged basement.
Back here, in Rochester, many fundraising and relief efforts are underway including the Sea Breeze Fire Association collecting and then driving down a truck load of supplies to Staten Island and Long Island.
Brighton and Pittsford kids next week are organizing a bagel breakfast for pick up or delivery to benefit the New York Mayor‘s Fund for sandy relief, aptly named Sand-Aid.
These are indeed dark days and it will take a lot of fundraisers like this in the weeks and months to come, even after the media finds another story to cover. But with relief efforts like this, there will be light again.
These are the blocks I used to bike through as a kid. Fox Beach was the detour my sixth grade bus took each morning to pick up a few kids on the way to school. The street was so narrow the bus could barely squeeze by.
These tiny bungalows, once used as summer getaways for the elite Manhattanites in the 1920s, became the blue-collar neighborhoods of my childhood in Staten Island. Tucked away “below the Boulevard,” the streets around New Dorp and Cedar Grove beaches had a feeling that they had been left back in time. Mom and pop delis and restaurants. Hardly any cars came by in these quiet narrow streets a few blocks off the water.
Out the window of my childhood bedroom, beyond another block of townhouses and a wetland field, I could see the ocean. Almost a week ago, this ocean swept into the old neighborhood. My parents evacuated, but neighbors who stayed behind said a wall of water came charging down the block, flooding basements and first floors, and then rushed back to sea as quickly as it came.
Here is a Youtube video posted on Facebook by one of my former high school classmates. Please watch it. Please, in your prayers, don’t forget Staten Island, the forgotten borough, it’s full of some great people.