Grassroots volunteerism emerges

Kevin and Jennifer Hughes in the lobby of Gateway Plaza’s 600 Building on the morning of Sun., Nov. 4, after several truckloads of donations had been transported to Staten Island to help communities wiped out by Superstorm Sandy. Downtown Express photo by Terese Loeb Kreuzer

BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER  |  Four days after Superstorm Sandy passed through New York City, Jennifer Hughes, an insurance broker who lives with her husband Kevin in Battery Park City’s Gateway Plaza, got a phone call from Jennifer Cannistraci, a former colleague and friend who lives on Staten Island. Cannistraci was O.K., she told Hughes. She had power and gas in her car, but Staten Island’s shoreline communities looked like a war zone. Hughes wondered if she could help.

“If we were able to get together some things and take them over on the ferry,” she said. “Would you be able to pick the stuff up and distribute it?”

Cannistraci said yes. So Jenn and Kevin Hughes made some handmade signs and posted them in the lobbies of the six Gateway Plaza buildings.“I received a few calls immediately and around eight bags of items that evening,” Jenn Hughes recalled. She thought that might be more or less the end of it, but it wasn’t.

Several people offered to meet Kevin and Jenn at 11 a.m. the next morning in the lobby of their residence, Gateway Plaza’s 600 building.

“Little did we know that we would never be going home again and we would be receiving donations almost immediately and all day long,” Jenn said. “We had 20 to 30 volunteers throughout the day who were here collecting and sorting items and packing them.” People dropped off clothes, toiletries, batteries, flashlights, baby formula, food, cleaning supplies and even a wheelchair.

By 1 p.m., the lobby was almost filled with donations. By 5:30 p.m., no more could be accepted — the stack of donations was five feet high.

“We were both flabbergasted at the outpouring of goods,” Kevin said. “The residents of this complex were more than generous — and it was by word of mouth and seeing the handwritten fliers, and then it just exploded through social media.”

A car or two was not sufficient for this haul. B.P.C.’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) provided $200 to rent a 15-foot-long truck, and the Downtown Alliance, the local Business Improvement District, said it would send a van to Gateway Plaza.

Because of the gasoline shortage, the volunteers had to find a truck that ran on diesel fuel. They finally located one in Harlem.

Shelly Mossey and his bike messengers, who have cargo bins attached to their recumbent bikes to be able to transport small loads around Manhattan, said they would take several loads of donations to Staten Island on the ferry.

On Sunday morning at 9 a.m., the volunteers started loading the truck and the van. “The whole process of loading the trucks took around 30 minutes, because there were so many volunteers,” said Kevin. “People just kept coming by saying they wanted to help.”

Roy Harp, a Gateway Plaza resident, drove the truck to Staten Island by way of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The Downtown Alliance van made several trips to the Staten Island ferry, where volunteers hand-carried donations to Staten Island.

Jennifer Hughes, who got to the island by ferry, was carrying a very special donation. Zach Cassell, 11, a 6th grader at P.S. 276, had come in the day before with his father, Peter, with a bag from P.S. 89, his previous school. In it was his most prized possession: his favorite shirt. “He had a tear in his eye as he gave it to me,” Jenn said.

He had worn this shirt to a Super Bowl game he had gone to with his dad. He said he wanted to give this shirt to a boy who needed it more than he did. Inside, he pinned a note explaining where this shirt had been and what it meant to him.

Zach said he didn’t want the shirt to get lost in the pile. Jenn told him she would personally carry it to Staten Island and give it to her friend to give to a boy who would appreciate it.

More than one tear was shed that day and the next. On Sunday morning, Jennifer Cannistraci assembled volunteers on the Staten Island side to offload the goods and distribute them. “I told her, we don’t have bags of stuff. We have mountains of stuff that we are sending your way,” said Hughes. “She couldn’t believe it. She was crying when she saw what we had brought.”

Hughes said that the Gateway Plaza grassroots effort to help Staten Islanders was not unique. They had run into other volunteer groups, she said, mentioning people she had met who had gone to Home Depot and bought things to take to Staten Island.

“They were just carrying it over themselves to find a place to donate it,” said Hughes. “What was different about us was that we had someone on this side and someone on that side, so we had the ability to coordinate. I think a lot of folks were going over not being really sure where they were going to bring things — just knowing that they were needed and that they were going to find a place for them.”

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