Part of a post-Sandy relief effort coordinated between the city and local nonprofits, United Way of New York City put out the message on Saturday: volunteers were needed the next day in Coney Island at one of the city’s 14 food and water distribution sites.
Whether because of a notice on nycservice.org, an email sent by Senator Daniel Squadron at 9:13 p.m. or word-of-mouth, 500 volunteers showed up the next day, according to Sheena Wright, CEO and president of United Way of New York City, which was assigned to assist Coney Island. The nonprofit emailed its own 80,000 contacts on Friday, and by Sunday, 5,000 people had registered to volunteer through a special Sandy Recovery page on its website.
From the Bronx, Queens, Manhattan and Brooklyn, volunteers on Sunday took the subway that was inching its way back to life in South Brooklyn. Power and debris issues at Coney Island’s Stillwell Avenue station meant the D train terminated at Bay Parkway, where volunteers transferred to the crowded B82, took cabs, walked, or in the case of one would-be marathoner from Long Beach, CA, jogged to the distribution site at Surf Avenue and West 25th Street.
Once there, most volunteers were assigned to climb the dark stairwells of NYCHA housing complexes, delivering mostly water, but also food to apartment-bound senior citizens, many of whom were also running out of medications, according to the United Way.
Two volunteers who began their journeys on opposite sides of Upper Manhattan became acquainted while traveling to Surf Avenue.
“Debbie and I just met coming off the D train…We shook hands and have been talking all the way since,” explained Christy, a nurse administrator who lives at 169th Street and Broadway. Because of her work, she received an email from United Way about the volunteer call. She filled out the form on their site, “and it was easy to get them to respond” in turn, confirming what she should do on Sunday by email. Other volunteer organizers she was in touch with required a bigger time commitment for a shift. United Way had requested five hours, from 12-5 p.m.Debbie, who lives on East 61st and York Street and teaches at high school in Long Island, said she had had difficulty finding a way to volunteer. She had gone to three or four websites, including United Way’s, which was the first to get back to her.
“I tried New York Care’s website, but it was down, as was the American Red Cross’. My email to nyc.gov didn’t go through. The United Way was very organized.”
By 1 p.m., a parks official standing at the site’s playground entrance held back both area residents waiting for self-heating meals and bottled water, and arriving volunteers. No more volunteers were needed.
Adam Fletcher, whose own apartment on West 19th Street in Chelsea had been left in the dark and without water Monday through Friday, had arrived in time to help.
“I can sympathize with these individuals to be without power and water,” he said, referring to those who lived in the surrounding NYCHA high-rises. “It was kind of a struggle.”
He explained that in the next ten minutes, an NYPD officer would be escorting volunteers through buildings to make sure they had food and water and knew about the distribution site.
“I assume people don’t want random people walking in their buildings,” he further empathized.
Salvation Army Major John Hodgson stood out on the grounds for both his commanding height and uniform. The Salvation Army is partnering with New York City and United Way and has been given responsibility by the city to manage its 14 distribution sites. “We work with the city and National Guard and United Way to make it happen,” the major explained.
“The first couple of days [after Sandy], the volunteers that came today were dealing with their own situations. We had a real large plethora of volunteers show up today.”
“It’s been phenomenal to have so many volunteers, so we were able to move lines quickly.”
Maris Segal and her husband had traveled from the Upper East Side to Union Square, where they were stalled by no subway service at the time to Brooklyn. They jumped into a cab whose driver hadn’t been to Brooklyn in years. Segal’s husband used his phone GPS to guide them, except for when they encountered police stops that redirected traffic due to downed trees and wires.
“My husband has never been to Coney Island and I’ve been here two times in my life,” Segal said. “We thought we should go to the furthest point [of need] we could get to.”
“At 11 a.m. there was no one here, but by noon – it was amazing.”
“The residents appreciate all that’s being offered,” added Major Hodgson, who described the community has being a diverse mix of young families and seniors. “They have no way to cook. They have to carry it up 20 flights. United Way’s people are doing a great job.”
Segal was impressed with the vast coordination going on in the city.
“After 9/11, it was hard to plug in and know how to help,” she said. “The system is so much better now. There’s so much more collaboration between groups. I think there’s a huge benefit to the private-public partnership.”
One area homeowner didn’t want to give his name, but was happy to talk with MetroFocus while he waited for the 3 p.m. drop-off of food and water. On Saturday, he had walked from his home at Brighton Beach and 3rd Street to the FEMA center, but supplies had been depleted and he left with only three or four boxes of cereal. On Sunday, he was able to take a bus to this site and was now waiting for water, blankets and food. He was familiar with the self-heating meals from his days in the military and was confident it would taste good.
He said he had insurance for his flooded basement and said, “I give Con Ed credit for staying on top of it. But they should have waited to flip the switch to let things dry out. Let people get the water out of their basements. When they flipped the switch at Brighton Beach on Thursday it was like Roman candles. Manhole covers were blown off.”
On the other side of the fence from the food and water distribution, more volunteers helped people who were looking for clothing items among the jumble of cardboard boxes between the chainlink fence and sidewalk. Next to the makeshift clothing drive was the AT&T charging tent, a service available at every one of the 14 food and water distribution sites.
United Way continued its service in Coney Island on Monday and Thursday. As for future plans, they are guided by the city and are taking taking orders day to day. If there is a need in Coney Island, they will be back, said a company spokesperson.
“People think their community is a six-block zone,” volunteer Maris Segal said, “but it’s not, it’s got a much larger heart.”