December 3, 2012

New York City Of Angels


In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, we’ve seen countless New Yorkers helping out other New Yorkers–here are just a few of their inspiring stories.

By Whitney C. Harris


In a time of crisis, there’s nothing quite as uplifting as neighbor helping neighbor. After Hurricane Sandy devastated so many parts of the tri-state area, New Yorkers far and wide started grabbing supplies, getting organized, and delivering relief to those who needed it the most. The outpouring of donations, support, and volunteerism has been astonishing and is continuing to grow so many weeks after the storm.

Here’s the irony: at its worst, the city is at its best. To celebrate the spirit of community that has risen throughout the city in the wake of the superstorm, we offer five vignettes of everyday heroism to remind us not only what people are capable of, but also what they’re actually doing.

A Bake Sale Grows In Brooklyn

As Hurricane Sandy’s devastating effects forced many local residents to stay home from work during the last week of October, many used the extra free time to brainstorm creative ways to contribute to the recovery efforts going on citywide.

The Brooklyn bake sale that raised over $3,000.

Caroline Gelb, a television producer who lives in Park Slope, came up with the idea for a community bake sale with her husband while they worked from home in the storm’s aftermath. Gelb’s husband, Todd McGovern, works for the Children’s Museum of Manhattan and had been writing about how to get kids involved in Sandy relief.

“I’m really a firm believer that kids have to participate in these things… What I really wanted to do was something that kids understood full-cycle,” Gelb says. “So the idea was that they help bake, they help sell, they know how much we raised, and where the money is going.”

Gelb and McGovern have two boys, Patrick, now seven years old, and Sam, thirteen, who pitched in to make and sell baked goods in their neighborhood. To get others on board, Gelb simply emailed the families in her building and its sister building to see who was available and interested in contributing. Soon, she had enlisted kids from around the area to make posters, bake cookies, spread the word, and hand-sell to passersby on the nearby street corner.

“The [children] were very excited about doing it,” Gelb notes. “And I asked them where they thought we should give the money. I wanted that to be a communal thing.”

After reading an article about an orphaned baby walrus that had recently found a new home at the New York Aquarium, the group decided that the flooded marine center deserved their help. Additionally, the bakers are supporting the relief efforts of their local councilman, Brad Lander, and have pledged to donate a large percentage of the bake sale’s profits to the Red Hook Initiative through his office.

A total of about thirty families—friends, neighbors, and friends of friends—were involved with the sale, most having found out about it through emails, Facebook, and Twitter. Jodi Kantor, a reporter at the New York Times, baked and promoted the sale to her online followers. John Hodgman, the writer and actor who plays the PC-obsessed geek in those unforgettable Apple ads, tweeted about it. Plus, everyone’s combined social networking efforts brought the bake sale to the attention of groups like Park Slope Parents and Effed in Park Slope.

“The fact that it was a real communal effort made the kids really excited,” Gelb says. Her older son, Sam, adds: “It was a great activity for the neighborhood to join together and do something for people who are suffering from Hurricane Sandy.”

In the end, the bake sale raised over $3,000, but its impact on those who participated is priceless.

“There have been so many lessons for kids,” Gelb says. “From being thankful [for] what we have to understanding that there are so many less fortunate—and that there are easy ways we can help.”

Raising The Bar On The Upper East Side

After the storm churned through New York in late October, the staff at Saloon on the Upper East Side knew that they wanted to help the victims in some way. As a member of the In Good Company Hospitality Group, which includes five other restaurants and bars throughout the Metropolitan area, Saloon staff had many close friends and families living in the areas hit hardest by the hurricane. In fact, the restaurant group lost one of their properties, Bungalow Bar & Restaurant, which was a beachside watering hole in the heart of the Rockaways.

Supplies being organized at Saloon on the Upper East Side.

“A lot of people are out of work and have lost their homes,” says Mike McCann, a General Manager at Saloon, who helped his staff quickly turn their nightlife venue into a center for receiving, organizing, and sending donations—which became literally overwhelmed with goods on some days.

Once they got the ball rolling on delivering people and supplies, the restaurant group set up a monetary fund to go directly to who needs it most in the Rockaways and Breezy Point. Through individual contributions and organized fundraisers, they’ve raised over $140,000 as of the magazine’s press date.

“It’s been humbling to see what our small network is able to do,” McCann says.

The money has been going towards basic supplies, clothing, temporary housing, rebuilding homes, and picking up the pieces that Sandy left in her destructive wake. Also to that end, the team at Saloon has been acting as a community liaison, keeping an ear out for what workers need and then spreading that knowledge to volunteers. So far, the most useful supplies have been face masks, work gloves, batteries, and cleaning supplies to help workers get through the wreckage and make sure they’re safe while doing it. “It’s going to be a long process,” McCann notes.

At Saloon these days, the phone doesn’t stop ringing with people asking how they can help and what else they can do. “It’s been a very smooth operation. Everybody knows what we we’re doing and how important it is,” McCann says.

What’s more, entertainers have even offered to perform at the venue to benefit Rebuild Rockaway. Melissa Nicoletti, who’s been coordinating a monthly comedy show at the bar, is donating all proceeds from her events. Meanwhile, friends of Saloon staff have been coming in to tend bar and donate their tips. It’s a joint effort made possible thanks to how closely knit the In Good Company team has become and how willing the larger community has been in lending a helping hand.

“This relief fund is very personal to us,” says McCann. “Everyone from our staff at all of our venues, friends, family, and even strangers contributed to this effort.”

To donate to the fund, visit ingoodcompanyhg.com.

Occupying Her Queens Backyard

“Like everything that happens in my life, it started with a need. I couldn’t find anywhere in Astoria that was serving as a central hub to bring people in Queens the resources and information that they were so desperately desiring,” says Leni Calas, the Founder of the website Queens Mamas, which is devoted to making life in her borough better for its resident families.

Leni Calas of Queens Mamas at work organizing relief efforts. Photo by Peter Field Peck.

Calas took matters into her own hands and reached out to Astoria Recovers to let them know that her house had space and was open for receiving drop-offs and organizing relief efforts. After a storm that left so many people in the dark, distributing information was one of the most crucial elements to coordinating relief in a timely manner.

“I have three pop-up tents in my driveway and I have two guys out there standing in the cold 14 hours a day receiving a constant stream of deliveries and drivers going down to the Rockaways,” Calas says. “And it’s still not enough.”

In her opinion, what it comes down to is cars and people. “What people really need to do is get in their cars with their entire group of friends, put on work gloves and warm clothes, eat before they leave, and prepare to go down into a disaster area and help out,” Calas says.

What has helped Calas in her efforts towards providing aid is having contacts and established relationships with community leaders—something that most locals simply don’t have. From City Councilman Peter Vallone to Click and Improve—a company that has been conducting home electrical inspections for free—Calas has acted as an intermediary between the organizations that provide help and the people who need it.

The Queens mom has been generally disappointed with how poorly state and local officials have communicated and coordinated efforts towards relief. And while she’s not optimistic about government agencies coming to the rescue, she has been truly impressed by the general public.

“The bravery and courage of this community [have] surprised me in a good way,” she says. “Some people will wait three hours to get gas and then come to me and ask where they can go to bring help.”

And then there’s her own 13-year-old daughter, Max, who went down to the Rockaways to help out, and also received donations in her family’s driveway for 12 hours when her mom couldn’t be there. And her three-year-old daughter, Roxy, who’s provided comedic relief while singing songs in her pajamas for the volunteers. Not to mention Calas’ own mother, who’s there cooking hot meals for all of the workers.

“This is why New York is great,” Calas says. “This is why New York is the best place in the world.”

To contribute to the relief effort and find information, visit queensmamas.com and astoria.recovers.org.

Downtown Delivers

During the height of Hurricane Sandy, Julie Menin, former Chairperson of Community Board 1 in Lower Manhattan and candidate for Borough President, lost power and soon began receiving text messages from tenant leaders in buildings downtown. “They had large amounts of seniors who desperately needed food and water. So I decided to organize a volunteer operation,” recalls Menin. The mother of three sent out an email blast asking for volunteers to meet her in the Lower East Side at buildings like Village View, which houses 1,200 apartments and is 60 percent occupied by seniors.

Julie Menin with volunteers at Village View after Sandy.

With backpacks full of bottled water, food, and batteries, Menin’s troops set up command centers in building lobbies and began knocking on doors. As word spread, the volunteers started getting calls that other buildings needed their help. In the span of four days, Menin and her team visited over 9,000 apartments to deliver food and water.

As time went on however, it became clear that the residents without heat or hot water would need more assistance. “I started organizing a blanket distribution, and we were able to hand out over 5,000 blankets,” the local leader says.

Menin remembers one senior in particular. “She was trembling, she was so afraid… These are people living in the dark for days on end, and there was no communication. People felt trapped,” she says.

When Menin convinced the woman to open her front door, she found the senior citizen distraught and crying, with no food or water. These types of life-threatening situations put the need for help in stark relief.

But she didn’t do it alone, of course. A rabbi from Tribeca Chabad sent out his own call for volunteers, as did JCorps and the Jewish Community Project. And a door-to-door operation was imperative to the groups’ success because the elderly simply couldn’t make the trip to a distribution center. Additionally, many of the tenants were in need of medicine, so Menin arranged to have doctors on-site.

As we settle into the busiest part of the holiday season, Menin notes that there’s still a lot of suffering in Staten Island and Breezy Point and other local communities. “There are people who lost everything,” she says.

Despite the work still to be done, the community organizer is thankful for those who have come out to participate in her relief networks—especially the smallest New Yorkers.

“One of the things I was really struck by was the number of parents who brought their children. Their children would climb 24 flights of stairs—in the dark, with a flashlight—and go door-to-door,” she recalls.

Menin’s own three boys are all under ten years old, but were familiar with evacuation procedures after Hurricane Irene last August. The biggest lessons that she hopes her children will learn? That giving back is a part of life in our wonderful city, that we’ve been able to rebuild before, and that we’ll do it again.

“Rebuilding requires everyone being involved and it requires a real commonality in spirit,” Menin says. “My kids have seen that now firsthand once again.”

Adopting Staten Island Fams

Two community-minded mothers in New York’s southernmost borough have teamed up with The Recovery Registry to help Staten Islanders get back on their feet.

Through their It Takes A Family donation program, Melissa Chapman of The Staten Island Family blog and Corine Ingrassia of Complicated Mama blog are capitalizing upon the charitable spirit of the holidays by matching families in need with people looking to give back and “adopt” them.

It Takes A Family helps Staten Islanders in need. Photo courtesy of thetrainafamily.wordpress.com

“The Recovery Registry has a long-term plan to create teams to really help these families rebuild their lives. In the short-term, Melissa and I were looking to do something to help contribute,” Ingrassia says.

Immediately after putting out the call for volunteers, the women received countless inquiries from people from all over the country eager to learn more about their adopt-a-family program. “Making that personal connection is a vital part of this whole ongoing process—really getting to know the family,” Chapman says.

“We’re both really excited about the great response that we’ve gotten so far. Around Thanksgiving, we had over 200 donor families adopt families in need,” Ingrassia adds.

As part of the program, the recipient families received a $50 gift card in November and another $50 gift card in December. Of course, volunteers are welcome to give more if they can. Knowing exactly what a particular family needs most is one big advantage of the adopt-a-family model. Establishing relationships between volunteers and families, while personalizing the donations, gives a sense of shared purpose to the effort.

“The whole thing is for donors to share this with their friends and family who also want to help,” Chapman says. “Once they get to know the [adopted] family on a long-term basis, they can put together a team.”

As popular bloggers, Chapman and Ingrassia have taken to their laptops to spread the word about their program. Their challenge has been not only to find volunteers but also families who will admit they need the assistance. As Ingrassia explains, many of the families they’re helping in Staten Island are working people who are used to being “the givers” and are now uncomfortable or embarrassed to ask for help. For that reason, It Takes A Family also has a “nomination” function so people can alert the organization to local families in need.

“We knew that something like this would be a great fit for Staten Island,” Ingrassia says.

In fact, they’ve been so encouraged by the good that has come out of their match-making, they hope to expand the program to help families in the other boroughs. Stay tuned.

To adopt a Staten Island family, visit thestatenislandfamily.com, complicatedmama.com, or ittakesafamily.net.

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