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Members roll up their sleeves
Idea to help in lieu of Election Day PD was born on UFT Facebook page
As a battered city struggled to regroup in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, educators due to report to school for a full day of professional development on Election Day began asking on the UFT’s Facebook page whether they could spend the day assisting those hurt by the storm instead. The UFT quickly brought the idea to the Department of Education’s attention. The response: If your principal says OK, you can do it. Many principals supported the idea. And that is how hundreds of educators across the city were able to spend Nov. 6 bringing water, blankets and baby supplies to hurricane shelters, walking up 15 flights of stairs in public housing to assess needs, doing demolition work on homes that were flooded, shoveling sand off the Coney Island boardwalk so emergency vehicles could get through and bringing hope and help to those who needed it most.
Far Rockaway, Queens
“She’s my angel.”
That’s how retired teacher Mamie Conyers, who lost almost everything when Hurricane Sandy ripped through Far Rockaway, described HS for Public Service social worker Rachel Mickenberg, who helped the elderly Conyers carry badly needed supplies from an impromptu community aid station back to her storm-ravaged home.
Mickenberg was one of around two dozen UFT members from the HS for Public Service and the Brooklyn Institute for Liberal Arts who set out from their schools on the Wingate Campus, in Brooklyn, to spend Election Day assisting with the recovery effort in Far Rockaway, one of the areas hardest hit by the high winds and flooding caused by the storm.
The educators first joined with community members at a nearby law office to pack a busload of supplies, including food, clothing, water, cleaning products, baby items, toiletries and blankets. Once in Far Rockaway, the group set up and staffed tables full of supplies outside a popular local restaurant, joining an ongoing community relief effort.
During the afternoon, scores of community residents — parents with small children, the elderly, young men and women bringing supplies to their families and neighbors — came and took what they needed. Many shared harrowing stories of how they had survived during the storm, and how they have struggled to survive since.
UFT volunteers also went door to door checking on and delivering supplies to residents of the surrounding single- and two-family homes in what is one of the peninsula’s poorest communities, where the devastation left by the storm was visible in the flooded cars, knocked-over fences, downed wires and streets littered with debris and the remnants of residents’ ruined possessions.
Leslie Moore, a teacher at the HS for Public Service, said she had volunteered for the trip because it was the right thing to do. “We’re the HS for Public Service. That’s what our school represents,” Moore said. “We help out when we can.”
She also spoke of a spirit of unity with her fellow New Yorkers. “Whether you live in the Rockaways, East Village or Brooklyn, we’re all New Yorkers and need to support each other.”
Of the trip’s hoped-for impact, UFT Director of Parent and Community Outreach Anthony Harmon said, “Although Far Rockaway is an island, there’s no need for them to feel that they’re alone.”
— Micah Landau
Coney Island, Brooklyn
Educators from throughout Brooklyn converged on PS 100 in Coney Island to coordinate their efforts in the hard-hit area.
Laferne Thomas, a Murrow school aide, was spending her birthday with a group that was doing the backbreaking work of digging out the sand from the boardwalk so that emergency vehicles could get through and storm drains would be clear in time for the following day’s nor’easter.
“I just felt this was something good to do. So many people don’t have much, the least I can do is give something back,” Thomas said.
Another group went door to door at private homes and in public housing to alert parents about the relocation of closed schools and FEMA emergency assistance, and to assess the need for food, clothing, shelter and medical attention.
Among them was Ruben McLaughlin, the chapter leader at PS 329 in Coney Island, a school he attended as a child himself, now relocated to PS 216. His group of 14 teachers brought emergency water and surveyed the needs of families in the public housing near their closed school. “This was the most heartfelt thing I ever experienced in my life,” McLaughlin said. “When you see people hurting and they need everything — and you are able to get them what they need within one to two hours — that is very emotional.”
Murrow English teacher Lisa Willner said she went with a group of nine teachers to the Coney Island houses, which had just had their electricity restored but still lacked heat.
Some of their lifesaving assistance, she said, included checking in on the elderly who were homebound and needed to get their prescriptions refilled. “We took their information and brought it back to the PS 100 site so they can get them their medications,” Willner said.
At buildings where there was still no electricity, UFT volunteers walked up and down 15 flights of stairs with flashlights to get out the word about schools and assistance.
“At all buildings, people were in need of blankets, hats, gloves, socks, water and food,” said UFT District 21 Representative Judy Gerowitz.
Natalya Sokolson-Gordon, a math specialist at PS 329 Surfside in Coney Island — also an affected school — was with a large group from the school who handed out leaflets with information and brought water and food for families.
“You can’t do enough out there. It’s like Katrina, it’s so bad,” said Murrow sign-language interpreter Marcie Frishberg.
— Cara Metz
Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn
“Thank God for these teachers, they are lifesavers. God bless them all,” said Michael Karnbach, taking a break from demolition work on the basement of his son and daughter-in-law’s home in this tight-knit community in south Brooklyn. Tears in her eyes, his daughter-in-law, Dana Ferro-Karnbach, who teaches at PS 244 in East Flatbush, said she was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support.
A contingent of teachers from Edward R. Murrow HS spent the day ripping out the water-soaked walls, ceiling, bathroom, wires and insulation in the home before it could grow mold and become a health hazard. “Let me tell you, these teachers are unbelievable, just rolling up their sleeves. They are some workers!” Karnbach said. By the end of the day, the piles surrounding the home were huge and the demo job was done.
“It’s the least we could do, and I know they would do the same for us,” said Murrow teacher Daniel Ullo, one of the 108 Murrow educators doing relief work that day.
The city erroneously did not make Gerritsen Beach, which is surrounded by water on two sides, a mandatory evacuation zone — which meant that no one was ready for the storm’s devastation and nearly everyone stayed. The surge brought seven-foot swells which flooded basements and, in some cases, entire homes.
Karnbach said his son was in the basement with a sump pump when the surge hit, and he narrowly escaped drowning by breaking a window and swimming out. From there, he heard a neighbor with two children screaming and helped bring them to a higher, safer floor.
Another neighbor from across the street was in desperate straits and he brought her and her triplets into his home for the duration of the storm.
In addition to the demolition work, the Murrow educators brought cases of drinking water, clothing, cleaning supplies and food, and helped out at the volunteer Gerritsen Beach Fire Department, which is serving as the neighborhood’s emergency hub.
“Nature at its cruelest brought out human nature at its best,” said Murrow Chapter Leader James Duncan.
— Cara Metz
Midland Beach, Staten Island
Marc Horowitz, an astronomy teacher from Brooklyn’s Edward R. Murrow HS, spent Election Day helping a member of the Federation of Nurses/UFT rip up ruined floorboards and wood paneling from his home in Staten Island’s Midland Beach community, where many of the homes had been submerged in six feet of floodwater.
Horowitz said he was frustrated watching the devastation on television and the trip offered him the opportunity he was looking for to help.
“As you drive in, it’s all those images you’re seeing from the news. Everything is ruined, said Horowitz. “It’s overwhelming how much has to get done down there. Literally every house has major problems, and it is going to be cold and dark. People don’t have power or even a home. Where are they going to go?”
Horowitz was among the dozens of UFT members from Murrow and PS 20 in Port Richmond on Staten Island who joined nurses from the Federation of Nurses/UFT to help in the recovery effort on Midland Beach on Nov. 6.
Anne Goldman, the head of the Federation of Nurses/UFT and one of the organizers of the trip, spoke of the importance of the volunteer effort.
“Many of our members, friends, families, neighbors live in Midland Beach and other affected areas,” Goldman said. “They need our help and as nurses and educators — as caregivers — it is both in our nature and is our duty to do what we can.”
Volunteers split into two groups, with one group sorting and delivering supplies to residents in need of food, water, clothing and other items, while the other helped homeowners remove debris from what remains of their homes.
Maria C. Savage, a longtime paraprofessional at Murrow HS who helped organize her school’s participation in the effort, described the scene outside as a “battlefield” with “everything thrown in the street, walls, furniture, lamps — everything they own.”
“I wish every staff development day we could go out into the community and help people,” said Savage. “There are always people in need. United we stand, and the UFT was united. Everybody pitched in and reached out.”
Sonia Fiallos, a PS 20 paraprofessional representative who came with her sister and around a dozen colleagues, stressed the need for more volunteers.
“It’s really bad down there. I don’t think people understand how much they need the help,” she said. “Reach out. Even though it’s cold outside and you’ve never met these people, just go do it. They need the help and we should help as much as we can.”
— Micah Landau