-- Ranges from Homework to Bathing the Infirm --
FLUSHING, N.Y., November 12, 2012 – When Hurricane Sandy struck, 26-year-old Queens College sophomore Tom Samothrakis spent 24 hours straight at the shelter the college had set up at the gym for hundreds of newly homeless storm victims. Afterwards Samothrakis went back to his home in Bayside to get some sleep and then returned for another 12-hour shift. He has since moved into a room adjacent to the shelter so he can spend more time caring for the evacuees’ needs. “These people lost everything, and I feel so lucky to have been spared,” he said.
Samothrakis is just one of the many members of the QC community who have worked around the clock donating time, food, water, clothing, and other supplies to over 450 men, women, and children. Since October 28, the college’s gym has been a haven for displaced people and their pets – many of whom were from the hard-hit Rockaways area – while portions of the dining hall served as a medical and special-needs unit.
QC is one of 10 CUNY colleges providing refuge at shelters set up by the NYC Office of Emergency Management (OEM). By coincidence, the two city employees directing the QC shelter are both graduates of the college.
The storm evacuees came to the shelter with only a few personal possessions, the clothes on their backs and dramatic stories of escape. One man told Samothrakis how he had carried his 250-pound paraplegic brother down several flights of stairs and out of their house, saving both their lives but breaking his arm in the process. Another said that as the flood water rose to his knees, he dragged a step ladder to the second-floor window of his two-story house, knocked out the air conditioner and carried each member of his family out. "These are the true heroes," said Samothrakis.
Right after Sandy hit, the college quickly mobilized to get word out about the shelter and its needs, using every means at its disposal, including Email, Facebook and Twitter.
"We were flooded with student phone calls and Emails from day one and spent countless hours managing personnel and the distribution of food, clothing, blankets, toys, diapers, towels, books, personal hygiene products and other donations that came pouring in," said Emanuel Avila, QC's Coordinator of Judicial Affairs and Service Learning.
Relief came in many forms. One time students from the Aaron Copland School of Music orchestra performed a classical music concert at the shelter for residents and staff. On other occasions the college organized a puppet show, and brought in a clown, magician and balloon-twister to entertain the children. The college's Human Resources Office has been collecting donations from faculty and staff, as well as fielding phone calls from the community.
"Some calls were from people looking for their relatives,” said Susan Mavrelis, an HR employee. "Others were from individuals and local companies who just wanted to help in any way they could."
The NYC Department of Education has made arrangements for children in the shelter to attend nearby schools. “The PTA from PS/IS 499 and our division worked together to buy backpacks and school supplies,” said Elementary/Early Childhood Education professor and chair Mary Bushnell Greiner. “Because it’s important for these children to be occupied after school, we plan to have our students read to them, help with homework and lead arts and crafts projects.”
QC Career Counselor Mark Klein elicited the aid of friends, family, his synagogue Temple Gates of Prayer in Flushing, and local merchants. "We posted information on our synagogue's website, and Rabbi Albert Thaler read off the list of needed supplies to our congregation," said Klein. "My wife (and QC alum) Laurie personally contacted people at the Oneness Foundation-Heart Restaurant, who brought and served hot food to over 400 individuals in the shelter, while the Queens Health Emporium contributed several cases of water and snacks. Even friends from neighboring synagogues joined us in the shelter."
The college's baseball, softball and lacrosse teams took turns working the graveyard shifts at the shelter, while juggling homework, sports practice, jobs and other responsibilities.
Carla Pennolino, an English major and senior member of the softball team who resides at the Summit, the college’s residence hall, helped set up tarps, tables, chairs and cots at the shelter before Sandy hit. “Listening to the evacuees’ stories was heartbreaking, but inspiring too,” observed Pennolino, who is now helping her mother coordinate a Christmas toy drive with a local church for the unfortunate youngsters.
"I'm so proud of our student athletes who made their own decision to look after our guests," said China Jude, VP of QC Athletics. "Even many of the coaches who volunteered their time had power outages and other personal post-storm issues to deal with…This was their way of coping."
From dog-walking to escorting the elderly and infirm to the bathroom, these volunteers did whatever was called for. Nothing was too onerous.
"Some of the elderly men were too frail to stand on their own two feet to shower, so several of us had to undress and bathe them," recalled Education and Community Programs Professor Terrence Quinn. "After that we had to pick up the dirty towels and soap from the floor. We were as drenched as the men we were washing."
Queens College of the City University of New York (CUNY), founded in 1937, is dedicated to the idea that a first-rate education should be accessible to talented individuals of all backgrounds and financial means. Its more than 20,000 students come from over 150 nations and speak scores of languages, creating an extraordinarily diverse and welcoming environment. Located on a beautiful, 77-acre campus in Flushing, Queens College enjoys a national reputation for its liberal arts and sciences and pre-professional programs. Each year Queens College has been cited by The Princeton Review as one of the nation’s 100 “Best Value” colleges, thanks to its outstanding academics, generous financial aid packages, and relatively low costs. The college opened its first residence hall in August 2009. More info on Queens College at www.qc.cuny.edu.