When it comes to counting those who have selflessly stood up in the face of tragedy following Superstorm Sandy, the community of Mt. Sinai can contribute three more names to the list.
Well, three plus 40 more. Plus another 400 Facebook fans, hundreds of neighbors, a few local businesses, donors from all over the country, two corporations and one Manhattan restaurant.
All this goodwill came in the span of just two weeks after Jessica Torres took her friend Robin Merlo to the Rockaways after the storm. Torres, who is from the area, went to drop off donations she had collected.
“She didn’t know what to expect,” said Merlo “She was quite upset.”
They saw the contents of people’s homes, their entire lives, destroyed, washed away, strewn about. They saw hardworking people – people who did not have a lot of money to begin with – trying to rescue what they could from the wreckage, trying to put their lives back together from scattered, soggy pieces. They also saw that at the time they needed it most, there was little help.
“No FEMA or Red Cross,” Merlo said. Though she noted that since she visited the area those organizations have come to the aid of Rockaway residents, at the time, Merlo said they were furious at the dire suffering they saw. “We were angry and upset.”
The pair took their anger and did something with it. While chatting about their experience with another Mt. Sinai mother Liza Pfeffer, all three decided to create a Thanksgiving feast for the residents of the Rockaways.
Torres, who worked as a guidance counselor in the area, spoke with a principal at one of the schools and he agreed that they could use Brian Piccolo Middle School in Far Rockaway to distribute meals but only on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
The women set to work and created a Facebook group called “Far Rockaway Thanksgiving Day Feast” to spread the word. The idea took hold fast.
“People kept in-boxing us,” Merlo said. They asked what they could do and how they could donate.
The outpouring was overwhelming and they thought it couldn't any get better. That was until they got listed on a popular Facebook page that connects people who want to help storm victims called “Giving Back to Sandy,” in turn prompting radio station WNYC to post it as well.
“My phone blew up with people from Manhattan, Pittsburg,” said Merlo. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Almost 400 people joined their Facebook group. Local organizations and businesses started donating to the cause like Land and Sea Seafood, Renzo’s Pizzeria, and Café Spiga. Corporations like BJ’s and Costco kicked in supplies too. They were even contacted by a midtown Manhattan restaurant called Tao whose employees donated 70 Butterball turkey gift certificates.
“We began asking for donations of food, including cooked turkeys, hams, and chicken, as well as side dishes and desserts,” said Liza Pfeffer in an email to Patch.
They enlisted the help of about 40 mothers from the Mt. Sinai community to help prepare the dinners.
“Some of these women cooked full turkeys and sliced them,” said Merlo.
They did it all while preparing Thanksgiving dinners for their own families.
The Mt. Sinai School District allowed them to use the elementary school parking lot as a staging area to accept the food and supplies.
Early Friday morning after Thanksgiving, volunteers began arriving and they eventually filled six carloads with the meals and supplies, some donated by the student council who gave them seven boxes of donations along with other donated items like blankets, coats, stuffed animals and books for children of the Rockaways.
“I got teary-eyed seeing all these cars pull up,” Merlo said. “It was amazing.”
Volunteers from the area headed out to Queens and were joined by others from Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, Nassau County and even Lake Placid, according to Pfeffer.
“As soon as we got there we were greeted by our friendly volunteers from other areas and we began to set up in front of the school,” she said. “We had an area for donated goods, as well as a huge buffet line that included around 80 hot sternos of food.”
Merlo said they had about 200 people show up at the school for a Thanksgiving buffet and then they set out into the community, going door-to-door to make sure those who couldn’t make it out to them also got food.
Pfeffer said that because of the hard work and dedication of Mt. Sinai residents, “we were able to touch so many people who were victims of Sandy that day.”
“I wish I could name them all individually because they all deserve credit,” she said.
Merlo also thanked the school district for opening up their parking lot for them and the mothers who cooked the meals.
“I’m very blessed to live in this neighborhood,” she said.
The momentum that the women have built up will not abate. They have already started planning a drive to help families over the holidays.
“We want to make sure the Rockaways don’t get forgotten about,” she said.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that the Thanksgiving feast was organized by the Mt. Sinai Student Council. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.
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