Feature stories

UCAN — and they do

UFT members in Bronx find ways to make a difference in the community

Miller Photography

UCAN. It stands for Uniting Communities and Neighborhoods, and it’s a new good-will project in the Bronx that has dozens of UFT members hammering or cleaning or beautifying or just playing games with children at a shelter.

It happens on the first Saturday of every month.

“Our members asked to be involved in a weekend program that was not necessarily school-based but just doing good in our communities,” said UFT Bronx Borough Representative Jose Vargas.

So UCAN was born.

It started small at the start of the school year. After Hurricane Sandy, 127 school staff members were getting onto buses to help families in hard-hit Far Rockaway.

Now UCAN is growing.

“People want to continue giving a day of service in the communities where they work or that need them,” Vargas said.

Storm troupers
The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy immediately became the focus of UCAN’s November project, with volunteers traveling by bus to devastated Far Rockaway in Queens on Nov. 17. They brought donated goods to the Refuge Church of Christt, then fanned out, going from door to door to help whoever needed it. Among them were teachers Freddie Cole, the chapter leader at Jeffrey M. Rapport HS, and Morayma Allende-Aponte of CS 67.

Freddie Cole: ‘Flattened lives’

UCAN uniting communities - 2 - cropMiller Photography

We had a nice breakfast at the Bronx UFT office, then hopped on the bus at about 9 a.m. and headed south to Far Rockaway. There was a lot of camaraderie. There were at least two people from my school. UFT members have been very generous and supportive with donations. The bottom of the bus was full, plus a 25-foot U-Haul truck. We divided donations into three sections: winter clothing, food and toiletries.

When we got there, we formed an assembly line of about 60 eager people at the church and offloaded everything in about 15 to 20 minutes. People in the neighborhood could come by and collect whatever resources they needed. Some of us stayed at the church to help with distribution. I and others got back on the bus and went into the neighborhoods, helping residents remove debris from their homes. Especially in basements, everything was damaged because of the flooding.

It was interesting; at one point we sat on the bus for a while because we were looking for areas that were in need. When you go into those situations — I had volunteered with Habitat for Humanity after Katrina — you can’t just go barreling into a neighborhood; you have to be sensitive to the people and find out what they need. We went from block to block. A group from FEMA pointed us to an elderly couple that really needed help. They were very appreciative; they could not have done that work by themselves. In other situations, the time it would take a few people to do the work that we did as a group would have taken days. One family had a fence leaning against their neighbor’s house, and we took it down, saved what we could save and trashed what we couldn’t. At one house we had to pull out all the Sheetrock from a basement so they could rebuild.

It reminded me of being back in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans after Katrina — that’s how bad it was.

People were very happy we came out there. Sons and moms and dads hugged us. On the bus going back we were exhausted, but there was such a positive feeling. We’re going to try to build with UCAN; I’m going to try to build it in my school because it builds a stronger union and is really helpful for people.

You can’t imagine what people in Far Rockaway are feeling. At one point one of us reflexively asked a woman, “How are you doing?” She said, “I can’t tell you. It’s too painful.”

At another point we were standing and watching a bulldozer flatten the stuff we had brought out of a house. It flattened people’s lives. Sure, they are material things, but there are a lot of photographs and things like that, and what were memories was now garbage. I really felt for them.

Morayma Allende-Aponte: ‘The woman had lost hope until she saw us’

UCAN uniting communities - 3Miller Photography

I left my house at 5 in the morning to get ready to go down to the Bronx office and get on the bus to Far Rockaway. Neighbors were outside emptying the contents of their houses, and we asked what we could do. They were just grabbing us and bringing us into their homes. Everything in the basements was lost: furniture, books, everything. One particular home belonged to a retired teacher, and in addition to all the old photographs that we had to carry out were all her lesson plans, all ruined.

We took out Sheetrock and gutted a basement. We even took down a fence. We didn’t take one break from the time we started. One lady whose house we were working on brought us some bottled water, but we were so motivated we didn’t even stop for lunch. Our group of 10 divided into two smaller groups and each group did about six houses.

Doing this brought up a mix of emotions. I felt good helping but of course it wasn’t enough. It felt great seeing the response of the UFT. As we were driving back from our assigned areas, we saw a lot of victims carrying UFT bags filled with donations, and that felt good. My sister, Aracelis Allende, who is a payroll secretary at CS 57, was working with me. We’re going through some difficulties in the family healthwise, and although I didn’t think this would help us forget what we have to deal with, it helped us to deviate from our own problems and focus on someone else’s bigger problems.

My son couldn’t make it, but I had with me my daughter Emily, who is a student at SUNY Orange in upstate New York. I wanted her to experience what really was devastating. We lost power for 24 hours, and for her that was hard living. So it was important for me to show her what it’s like to lose your whole house. I wanted her to experience people’s loss firsthand; it’s different than just seeing it on TV. To understand that we were just inconvenienced, and that is nothing compared to what others experienced.

We were exhausted on the way back. Barbara Vargas, a secretary at the Bronx UFT office, had tears in her eyes, and I asked her if she was OK. She explained to me she just had a conversation with a woman who wasn’t being helped very much by her insurance company or by FEMA yet and was basically left on her own to do everything. She said she had lost all hope until we showed up.

A room of her own Paraprofessional Ilana Guzman of PS 111 and teacher Janine Garvin, the chapter leader of PS 108, were among a dozen educators who went to PS 18 to help art teacher Katherine Hurtado set up a classroom from scratch on Oct. 13.

UCAN uniting communities - 4 - cropPat Arnow

Guzman: Katherine was traveling from class to class to do art.

Garvin: She was given a classroom that was used for storage, and we were helping her clear out unnecessary things and organize art supplies.

Guzman: There was a lot of stuff in that room! She really needed help in removing everything.

Garvin: It was dusty and dirty, and I got ancient paint all over my hands, but it was OK because it was to help a fellow educator. About 10 other Bronx UFT volunteers were coming and going, moving things around. By the end of the day it was a functional classroom. Before, Katherine had just been using a corner of the classroom. Then she wanted to put on her own final touches by herself. She was so happy because there had been a lot of work to do. Guzman: It was nice working with the other people who were there, everybody working together. Katherine was so happy to get all this help to organize her classroom. I love helping other people and I was especially happy to help someone set up a classroom so she could teach.

Garvin: I had been thinking of doing some volunteering. I hadn’t done any in so long, so when this came up with UCAN I thought I’d take advantage of it. Someone needs helps and I’ll help out how I can. I don’t mean to sound cliche-ish but it’s part of our human duty to help those who need it if you’re able. It makes me feel useful, not sitting around watching TV but helping another person. We should all do what we can to help people in our community.

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