For City Year New York corps members serving in a Hurricane Sandy-ravaged city is about more than tutoring and mentoring.
In our A City Education series, City Year corps members share their experiences working as tutors and mentors in schools in hopes of closing the opportunity gap and ending the dropout crisis.
"Why I serve" statements are an important aspect of City Year culture. At the beginning of the school year, corps members are asked to provide statements explaining why we choose to dedicate a year of service in schools. My teammates and I all come from different backgrounds, and we all have different goals for our future. But what binds us together is our desire to help the students, teachers, and families in the school and community in which we serve, and our decision to use this time in our lives to work towards the betterment of New York City. That has never been more true than in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
As you've seen in the news, thousands of New Yorkers were devastated by Sandy—their homes and neighborhoods were destroyed by the storm. Staten Island was one of the hardest hit boroughs, and when New York City Schools closed for Election Day, my team used the time off to go out to Staten Island to help with the relief efforts.
We found a group on Facebook called "Rebuild Staten Island" that was connecting volunteers with members of the community. Anyone from the damaged communities could post requests for help, and volunteers could respond to the call. Although we were unsure what work we would be doing, our team of 11 corps members made arrangements to go to Seaver Avenue, in the Dongan Hills neighborhood.
We met at the school where we serve—P.S. 154 in the South Bronx—at 9 in the morning. We left two hours later but because of the enduring transportation difficulties due to Sandy, by the time we got to the work site, we had been traveling for over three hours. We only had around two and a half hours of sunlight left, but we were ready to work.
We'd brought a bag of work gloves and, because of the 30-degree temperatures, we’d layered as warmly as we could underneath our City Year uniforms. The man who organized the Facebook event gave us more tools—plastic gloves, bleach, and a few shovels and brooms—and directed us to a home a few blocks away.
Walking around the neighborhood was a humbling experience. The houses in the area had experienced severe flooding, and nearly every home needed to be gutted due to damage and contamination from the salt water. While the outside of each home looked stable, every front yard we passed was piled ten feet high with wood scraps, furniture, and odds and ends that needed to be thrown. Cars that were moved by the water were piled on top of one another, parked across lawns, and poking through fences. I had never seen such devastation first-hand in my life.
As my team walked through the neighborhood, residents came out of their homes to thank us for being there, to bless us, and to offer us water or their restroom. Their gratitude was immense, and it became clear how much help this community needed. When we reached the house we were assigned, the owner opened the door and gasped when she saw how many of us were there to help her. In our matching red jackets and Timberland boots, we must have looked like quite the cavalry.
Our job was to gut the basement apartment, which had been flooded with over four feet of water. We started with the larger furniture—we carried out a couch, an armoire, cabinets, a dresser, a futon, the fridge, the oven and every piece of electronic equipment. Then we ripped up the carpeting, and cleaned what was left of the floor with bleach to help with the smell. Everything was waterlogged, making the load heavier and harder to carry. But with 11 of us working as a team, we successfully emptied the apartment in a little over two hours.
I stopped working every once in a while to watch my teammates in action. Everyone's dedication to service was empowering us to lift the heaviest objects, to get the job done in the time we had. When the sun set and the community fell dark—power had not yet been restored—we said goodbye to the residents and wished them luck.
My team was covered in dirty water, sore from head to toe, and tired from the challenging labor, but there was a positive energy radiating from us. We felt the accomplishment of a hard day's work, and the gratification of knowing we worked to help others. While we were worried about waking up at 6:00 A.M. for school the next morning, we were proud of the work we did that day.
The cleanup from Sandy is likely to take months, so I expect that we will have the chance to help out again. Along with the tutoring and mentoring we do in schools, we’re excited for the work we will continue to do for the communities of New York City. This is why we serve.
Want to help with the recovery? Spread the word about Sandy Friday, a campaign that's asking local businesses to pledge up to 10 percent of their Black Friday/Cyber Monday profits to relief in the most hard-hit areas of Coney Island, the Rockaways, Red Hook, and Staten Island.
Photos courtesy of Robin Krosinsky