- Many communities in the Rockaways are still suffering after Superstorm Sandy
- The Beachside Bungalows preservation area was almost entirely submerged
- Volunteers wanted to make sure residents didn't miss out on Christmas as well
- "Bring Christmas to the Bungalows" is using social media to gather toys and gifts
As a British journalist based in New York, I've already filled acres of overseas column inches with my love for the Rockaways, the narrow, sandy strip of land sticking out into the Atlantic from the borough of Queens.
In fact, I've even listed "catching the A Train from Brooklyn to Rockaway Beach" in the list of my "top five favorite things in life" on the contributor pages of a glossy magazine.
When Superstorm Sandy hit, I was working on the West Coast, safely out of harm's way myself but stricken with concern for the city -- and the people -- I love the most. The low-lying Rockaways were one of the worst-hit areas, with hundreds of homes destroyed and thousands more damaged beyond belief.
So it was with a broken heart, but a burning hope to be able to help, that I made my first post-Sandy venture to the Rockaways a couple of weekends ago -- not via the A Train, sadly; the ruined railway bridge over Broad Channel, which connects the narrow peninsula to Queens, will take months more to repair.
Instead, my friend Beatrice and I were lucky enough to hitch a ride with Shannon and Kasey, two young women we met in the volunteer carpool line outside Occupy Sandy's (an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement, dedicated to bringing help to the storm's victims) temporary Sunset Park HQ in Brooklyn.
Occupy is undoubtedly doing a great job in coordinating much-needed manpower and provisions to Red Hook, Staten Island and New Jersey, as well as hooking up carless would-be volunteers with those with wheels.
But at some of the volunteer depots we were directed to on the Rockaways, we found well-stocked warehouses, hectic with both people and provisions; we felt there was little we could do at those sites to be of real practical help.
So, the four of us, fast friends, decided to go rogue. Following the advice of others volunteering nearby, we found a church on Beach 99th Street that urgently needed extra helpers.
They were happy to put us to work under the watchful eye and well-informed guidance of one local resident, Valerie, and with the invaluable assistance of another, Bolu, a recent high school graduate who himself had only just got power back that day but who was keen to help his own community.
As part of a small makeshift convoy, including Nancy with a Van, we spent that Saturday afternoon driving supplies from temporary depots in churches and community centers out to hard-hit homes across the Rockaways.
What quickly became apparent was that there are still many communities suffering greatly. At Far Rockaway, at the north end of the peninsula, many homes were still without power, heating and hot water -- and told they might remain so for another two months.
At one car park, operating as a makeshift outdoor relief center, a large crowd quickly clamored around the back doors of Nancy's van as we unloaded much-needed food, blankets, cleaning supplies, toiletries and water. The water coming from their taps, many told us, was still not safe to drink.
Valerie ushered us down a nearby side street to the Bungalows. Pre-Sandy, the Beachside Bungalows Preservation Area was a pretty stretch of historic single-story wooden homes seconds back from the beach. During the storm, they were almost entirely submerged by the Atlantic; many families have lost almost everything.
And yet the residents remained cheerful and positive, engaging us in conversation even as they piled ruined furniture and possessions outside their front doors. But it was clear that the relief effort, concentrated several miles down the road, was barely reaching residents here, beneath the radar, who are facing a terrifyingly tough winter ahead.
Galvanized by what we had witnessed that afternoon, as we drove back to Brooklyn and Manhattan, we wondered what more we could do. With full-time jobs, we were not able to give every day to the hands-on relief effort, as our consciences would want us to.
However, a plan unfolded to take some other form of direct action: to bring Christmas to the Bungalows this year.
Shannon and Kasey, both tech-savvy young social workers, set up a Facebook page to appeal for toys and gifts for the children of the Bungalows area. What better use for oft-berated social media than to rally support for worthwhile projects to help those in need?
Beatrice and I, both journalists, are disseminating the call-out through the various media we work across and encouraging our contacts to do the same.
Bolu, our man on the ground, with the able assistance of Jessica, one of the teenagers who lives in the Bungalows, has been coordinating collection of the names, ages and genders of the children in the area. No 7-year-old boy wants a Barbie for Christmas, however well meant.
Only 10 days into our appeal, the response has already been incredible and is testament to the big hearts of the residents of the Big Apple. Individuals, businesses, schools and social groups, families and fraternities have all been generously collecting and pledging gifts. We are hoping to have a haul for 250 children.
There are so many ways to help our fellow New Yorkers who have been hit so hard by Superstorm Sandy. If you can't pull on your wellies and help pump out a basement, you could organize a gift collection or even help deliver the presents. We'll be bringing Christmas to the Bungalows on December 16; Santa hats and elf outfits will be positively encouraged.