Non-Profits Weather The Storm
“Having never been through a situation like this before,” Jeanne Dupont, Executive Director of the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance (RWA) said, a year after Hurricane Sandy, “it was a challenge at first to know what to do.”
When the storm hit, Rockaway and Broad Channel’s non-profit organizations like RWA, found themselves with a new purpose; to help the community get through the aftermath of the worst disaster they had ever faced.
For nearly all of them, this occurred while they themselves, along with all their members and staff, were struggling after being slammed hard by the storm, too.
“Rockaway organizations aren’t just addressing the community needs highlighted in their missions; some have also taken on relief efforts. Non-profit staff are personally affected by the storm. (They) are displaced. They too lost cars and homes, and are living without power. Their families are managing great stresses,” Barbara Turk, Senior Fellow at the Community Resource Exchange said at the time.
Some groups were here, others sprang up in response and others came to help and stayed.
Non-profits were as diverse as the Broad Channel Athletic Club (BCAC) and YANA (You Are Never Alone). Their complements included the Graybeards, Rockaway Wish, the Rockaway Theatre Company, Rockaway Little League, Rockaway Youth Task Force, Occupy Sandy, Arts In Parts, Safe Space, the Shore Soup Project, Rockaway Rescue Alliance, Rockaway Help, Smallwater, Rockaway Artists Alliance, the Broad Channel Civic Association, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Rockaway Civic Association, the Knights of Columbus and many more. Other efforts, some of which were created online, included Broad Channel Hurricane Sandy Relief, Sandy Silver Lining, Rockaway Help, the Rockaway Free Flea Market, Hurricane Sandy Book Drive, Friends of Rockaway, Friends of Rockaway Beach and more.
The list is long. The roster of services they provided is longer, including coordinating relief efforts and volunteers on the ground, distributing supplies, providing hot meals and non-perishable foods, clean outs, guiding residents to resources and information, and even hosting children’s activities and toy drives.
Before the storm, according to Dupont, “One of the issues that came up again and again was that nobody knew where the Rockaways were! They thought we were part of Long Island or Brooklyn. We really weren’t on the map.”
That changed on October 29th, 2012.
Sal LoPizzo founder of YANA (You Are Never Alone) had just finished renovating its storefront on Rockaway Beach Boulevard a week before the hurricane. Intended to be an outreach center to help former inmates and others with business and hands on job skills, it was soon offering food, clothing, blankets, essential supplies and even a medical clinic. It also became a hub for volunteer activities.
YANA quickly became allied with Occupy Sandy, an off-shoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Within days Occupy Sandy was putting out an internet wide call for “volunteers interested - and ideally skilled - in construction, but anyone willing to get dirty. Will be put to good use.”
In conjunction with YANA they would be sending those volunteers across the peninsula, doing everything from debris cleanup and gutting houses to donation distribution.
Seeing a need that they could fill The Rockaway Beach Surf Club took on the role of impromptu neighborhood gathering spot, community relief and aid station, staffed by volunteers.
In March the displaced Rockaway Artists Alliance brought together creative expression, music and spoken word performances and children’s artistic activities at the Knights of Columbus Hall for a Day of Healing Through Art. They carried through with many programs and performances at the MoMA PS1 Dome.
As with many of the newly founded groups that sprang up in response to the devastation of the storm, Rockaway natives Evan Abel, Michael Sinensky, Chris Miles, Etan Fraiman, Joe Fraiman, Jordon Brown, Danny Brown and Melissa Sorger also saw overwhelming needs and organized to meet them.
They formed Friends of Rockaway. Through grants they were able to offer free services to residents including muck outs and gutting, mold assessment, mold remediation and rebuilding, and create needed jobs.
The Rockaway Youth Task Force did their part as well. Among many other things, they and their 23-year old president Milan Taylor took on the challenge of servicing the high rise buildings in their area, delivering food and supplies to the disabled and elderly who often were not able to leave their powerless buildings.
The Rockaway and Broad Channel disaster recovery was notable for its wide streak of do-it yourself, neighbor helping neighbor efforts.
Even before the storm the members of Team Rubicon had reconnaissance teams scouting the area for potential trouble spots. Within days their first teams were on the ground assessing damage and delivering aid.
Within two weeks it was estimated Team Rubicon had 300 military volunteers and 5,000 civilians in the field. According to news reports, by December their ranks had risen to 350 team leaders and almost 10,000 military and non-military volunteers.
Founded by two former Marines, Team Rubicon’s first mission was to provide hands-on aid to Haiti after its 2010 earthquake.
As a Team Rubicon media release put it, “Military veterans chose to serve in part because of the desire to dedicate themselves to a cause larger than their own and that desire for service does not stop when they take off the uniform. The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy presents veterans with an opportunity to continue to serve while employing the skills they learned in the military.
“Skills such as decisive leadership, teamwork, risk mitigation, and emergency medicine make military veterans uniquely qualified for disaster response.
With vets coming from as far away as Alaska and Norway, Team Rubicon’s Sandy relief operations included clearing water, sand and dangerous debris out of houses and residential streets.
Likewise, internationally known Habitat For Humanity, using Christ Community Church in Breezy Point as it base, also came to help.
As reported in The Wave, by January, the group had worked on more than 300 homes throughout Rockaway, according to Jim Killoran, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Westchester. More than 3,500 volunteers from different ethnicities, faiths and parts of the world came to help the Habitat effort.
While some pumped out basements and cleared debris, other groups addressed other needs of Sandy struck residents.
And as other groups wrapped up emergency efforts, many knew longterm care would still be needed. Displaced herself, Marissa Bernowitz started the “Rockaway Free Flea Market. Even in the freezing days of deep winter, Bernowitz, her mother and ‘Mama’ Rose could be found every weekend serving up hot food and laying out kids and adult clothes, canned food, toys, baby items and more.
“We’re the free supermarket,” Bernowitz said, when most area stores were still shuttered.
An example of the partnerships that sprang up after the storm, the Free Flea Market received support from YANA, Occupy Sandy, UWSLoves, BK Girls Give Back and many more groups.
Bernowitz has also gone on to be involved in many community issues, such as protesting to reopen the Seaside Park Playground and attending Stop FEMA Now and transportation rallies.
Non-profit efforts ran from large to small. On an individual scale, then 14- year-old Arial Creamer started the Sandy Silver Lining initiative. Via her website it matched treasured items survivors lost to the storm with donors ready and willing to “replace things that people lost which they can’t replace on their own without help,” she said. “They’re already going through so much.”
Both Creamer and Jessica Klein of Rockaway Help were honored at the White House by President Obama as Champions of Change.
Klein, Jamie Jordan and Katie Honan created the online resource, Rockaway Help (aka Rockaway Emergency Plan) starting with mutual contacts on the night of Hurricane Sandy, to share information and connect people with resources throughout the community.
Putting the momentum of civic hacking, or the open sharing of ideas and information, Klein said “civic hacking is all about mobilizing the local community to have a voice in identifying and solving hyper-local problems. Rockawayites are natural civic hackers - we are great at complaining and also bootstrapping solutions!”
Stephanie Wagner started Broad Channel Hurricane Sandy Relief, on her laptop and rapidly raised more than $14,000 to provide Christmas lighting, a holiday celebration with presents and other aid for her island community. Her car, home and job had all gone with the flood.
Likewise Frances Locke and Donald D’Avanzo created and ran the “Hurricane Sandy Book Drive,” bringing hundreds of thousands of books to residents who had lost theirs. Donations became so numerous they overran their Rockaway home and began to fill a storage container next door. One poignant donation came in the form of a trailer load of books sent by a woman in memory of her friend, a teacher killed in December in the Sandy Hook, school shootings.
Even while still recovering from the hurricane, local community groups reached out to provide comfort to that Connecticut town. Over the past year, with a deep understanding of their own difficult times and the bottomless kindness of others, Broad Channel and Rockaway groups have organized to send donations and volunteers nationwide to communities in need.
“As a joke,” Graybeards president and founder Steve Stahis told the Daily News, “I said, ‘What would we do when we get a million dollars?’
“But we never believed we could raise that much.”
Yet raise it they did. Fundraising, making connections with businesses and individuals, finding donors, the Graybeards brought together that amount and more.
In December, they were recognized on stage at Madison Square Garden at the 12-12-12 Sand Relief benefit concert. By May, passing every penny they brought in to those in need, they had helped more than 800 Rockaway families.
“We want to make sure that people are not forgotten,” Stathis said.
Describing their own recovery role Rockaway W.I.S.H (Women Inspired to Support & Help) founders note on their website, “Since 2006, our group of born and bred Rockawayites, has been at the forefront of local volunteer efforts, aiding our neighbors in times of need. On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy decimated our hometown, making our presence in the neighborhood more crucial than ever before. Our Mission, post Hurricane Sandy, is to provide monetary relief to victims during the recovery and rebuild phases of this disaster.”
They, too, have been active in raising funds and supporting a wide variety of months. Even while much of Rockaway was still blacked out, with the help of donated solar powered generators, Rockaway WISH was able to provide a community wide Thanksgiving celebration at the Belle Harbor Yacht Club. Partnering with the producers of the CBS television show “The Good Wife,” the International Culinary Institute and others, they threw a January Hurricane Sandy Recovery Bash.
The event, held in a huge heated tent set up around the BHYC, featured food, drink, music, kids’ activities and more, was attended by more than a thousand residents.
“We needed this,” said one man, thanking Rockaway WISH, “We all really needed this.”
A year after the storm, Rockaway and Broad Channel non-profits large and small continue to pick up the pieces with an eye towards serving as emergency hubs should the need arise and a new dedication to building back their communities bigger and better than they were.