Editor’s Note: FEMA does not endorse any non-government entities, organizations, or services.
The one silver lining of disasters is they can bring out the best in humanity. The world becomes connected – people in countries from across the oceans send food, money, blankets and other supplies. And neighbors help neighbors, paying it forward, and continuing to do so for as long as it takes. With the holidays approaching, the desire to pay it forward is even more heightened.
To me, nothing illustrates how kindness begets more kindness in times of crisis than the story of 87-year-old Patsy Roberts, someone who has been described as “the matriarch” of her block – a strong, faithful friend and neighbor in the Belle Harbor community of Rockaway. She never forgot the mailman’s birthday, passed by a tossed trashcan without returning it to its place, or hesitated to cook a meal for someone in need. She performed random acts of kindness as routinely as she walked along the beach each morning and went to church every Sunday.
After Hurricane Sandy, she was forced to leave her home of 50 years. Much of her personal property was destroyed, including thousands of cards she had saved over the years from friends and family. She told her daughter, Virginia, and son-in-law, Cristian, that she was saving them “to read when my time came to remember everyone I love.”
Patsy gave the family strength the night of the storm. “At first, she didn’t want to leave her home,” says Virginia. “But she agreed to come to our house, a few blocks away from the ocean.” At about 11:00 p.m., the Dobles home was surrounded by five feet of floodwater. “Telephone poles and cars were coursing through that water,” says Virginia. “I’m not being melodramatic when I say I have never been so scared in my life. My brother-in-law called and told us a fire was heading toward us. Then we saw flames leaping 13 feet high.”
When Virginia told her mother they would have to flee the house and go out into the water, she said, “Okay, if that’s what we have to do, we’ll do it.’”
“She went upstairs and put her slicker on – the one she’d wear for her morning walks – and was stoic,” says Virginia. “Living through WWII and the depression made her that way. Meanwhile, I was hysterical. But my mother’s calmness helped me.”
As Virginia’s husband was inflating trash bags to use as flotation devices, the family saw a black vehicle drive through the waters in front of their home. “It was like a mirage,” she says. “Eight guys with a raft on top…they yelled to us, ‘Stay in your home. The wind has shifted!”
The fire did indeed turn in the other direction. “I don’t know who they were, but they saved our lives,” says Virginia.
The family is now waiting to hear how much Patsy’s flood insurance will cover before making plans to repair and move back in to her lifelong home. In the meantime, her son-in-law, Cristian, who calls each card she’s sent to people over the years a “little prayer,” initiated a letter writing campaign in the media for her. So far, she’s received more than 1,500 cards.
“It’s wonderful,” says Virginia. “She was a very active woman and now she can’t really go out because of the damage and the air quality. These cards are therapy for her.”
It’s a good thing Virginia’s husband didn’t tell her ahead of time about his card campaign. “I’m kind of a Grinch,” she laughs. “I am so glad he didn’t tell me because I would have been like, ‘absolutely not!’ But this is the best thing for her. The outpouring of love and support is inspiring. And people are sharing personal details of their life, not just superficial things. They’re making a real connection. It restores your faith in the goodness of people.”
For those who are looking for ways of making a wonderful difference in a hurricane survivor’s life, here are some organizations that help Sandy survivors for the holidays as well as beyond:
- Toys for Tots: This organization, run by the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, lost much of its inventory of toys in New York during the storm.
- Fashion Delivers: A non-profit organization which collects excess inventory from companies to distribute to those in need. This Saturday, Dec. 22, and Sunday, Dec. 23, the group is organizing free holiday shopping for Sandy survivors in Staten Island. Pre-registration with a FEMA number is required for admission. Staten Island residents who would like an invitation can contact Tony Navarino at Fashion Delivers’ partner agency Tunnel to Towers at 718-987-1931. For more information visit www.FashionDelivers.org
- Believe in Belle Harbor: An organization founded by the Roberts family in partnership with Team Rubicon, a group of retired military veterans who volunteer their time to help at disaster sites www.believeinbelleharbor.com. For Team Rubicon: www.teamrubiconusa.org
- Where to Turn: Organized a toy drive where families can pick out two toys per child at a former store located at 3948 Amboy Road in Great Kills, Staten Island, from noon to 7 p.m. until Christmas Eve. Families must show photo ID with proof of address as well as their FEMA number to qualify. www.where-to-turn.org
- BrotherMelo: This youth program will be hosting families affected by Hurricane Sandy with a Holiday Party with donated toys, clothes and household supplies. Saturday, December 22 at the Community Center 110 West 9th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11231, Red Hook, Brooklyn, from 1 to 3 p.m. For more information or volunteer opportunities, you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org
- Other organizations that are assisting Sandy Survivors:
- Salvation Army: www.use.salvationarmy.org/gnyd
- Food Bank: www.foodbanknyc.org/
- Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City: http://www.nyc.gov/html/fund/html/home/home.shtml
- NYC Service: www.nyc.gov/service
- Long Island Volunteer Center: www.longislandvolunteercenter.org
- New York Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster: www.nyvoad.org
- SERVE.gov: www.serve.gov/sandy/
- National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster: www.nvoad.org/sandy