My Visit to the Rockaways: No One Should Have to Live Like This

Today on my way home from spending the morning volunteering at St. Carmillus Church & School in the Far Rockaways, my head spun with torment. Torment for all the people living in poverty.  Torment for all the people living in fear.  Torment for the people desperate for a chance in life. Torment for the young children I saw come into the church for clothes to cover their small bodies.  Torment for the mothers and fathers trying to provide for their children. Torment for all the people still living without heat.

These people feel abandoned.  I saw no sign of FEMA.  A representative from Occupy Sandy Relief showed up and she was like an angel that dropped from the sky. She showed such heart, such concern for these people, and to think she is a volunteer like me is amazing. I wanted desperately to know more about her, but I spent the time that I had helping the people I have been spent nights worrying about.

I had been given a large sum of money to spend on the effort and had stopped at Home Depot en route, picking up mops, brooms, detergent, flash lights, batteries and more.  I am so grateful to my high school friend for collecting funds to purchase much of it, as well as my synagogue whose members have provided so generously to the effort over the last few weeks.

When I arrived at the church, I walked into a room full of stuff – clothes, blankets, sheets stacked on tables.  Boxes of canned food, bottles of water, toiletries that needed to be put out.  And people.  So many people. I noticed people poking through the items and waiting patiently in line with garbage bags in hand for detergent and other scarce items desperately needed. Many did not speak English.  Many are still in shock, even though the hurricane now occurred several weeks ago.

Mama Rose, the woman in charge, quickly sussed me out and put me to work.  I was asked to sort through blankets and sheets and get them on the tables.  The blankets went fast.  Words about the cold, living without heat flew across the table and whipped through my ears.  My co-worker, Emma, kept taking things out of the boxes and putting them in a bag under the table, I suspect for herself, and when people walked up, she pushed them further under so no one would take her stash.


Tensions were running high.  There was a volunteer who had helped me unload my carwho kept yelling at the people coming in to escape the cold.  I heard one of the women in charge tell him to leave everyone alone and mind his own business.  Later on, he would accuse me of swiping two jugs of Pine Sol and I would remember that I was dealing with a crazy.

A fight broke out in the line for the items needed most, which happened to be ones I brought from Home Depot.  People need to clean their homes and they’re desperate.  Two women pulled me aside and asked me to help them obtain some cleaning liquid, but I was helpless.  Apparently, it had all gone so fast that they were going to start to ration it into cups.  I asked if they had children.  They both have several and are living in fear of their future. They need food, clothes, everything.  They had tears in their eyes when I took down their information and swore I’d appear in their lives soon.  And I will.

The last month has been a tough one in the Rockaways— lives and homes lost, people left out in the cold, the uncertain road ahead.  Driving around this morning, it was almost as though it just happened last week.  I drove down a road of homes that were demolished in the storm.  Nothing has been cleaned up.  I wondered about the people who lived there. Where are they now?  What will they do?  Where will they go?

the Rockaways

The worst part is that help is slowing down.  The events going on are no longer on the news.  Real estate moguls are coming in, wanting to clean up the Rockaways and turn it into a glitzy beach town, stealing their homes and taking away their history which they won’t let disappear.  Many grew up here and have no intention of leaving. They want to stay.

I saw children today.  I saw children with hopes and dreams we can’t let get overlooked.  I saw their brave parents as I served hot food onto their plates tell them how good the food looked.  I related to parents who said their children wouldn’t eat the tuna casserole or potato salad, but I worried that the kids didn’t have other options.  They needed to eat this food, but even I couldn’t make my own in the most extreme situation.

Why do I keep taking time out of my busy work day to help these people? This is the city I love and people are hurting. I wish I had more time to give, but I realized today that even the few hours I spent with these people made a difference.  Several people told me “God bless you” and smiled when I made them laugh.  They need warmth, they need reminders that it will be okay.  They need a lot more than that, of course.  But if they know that we care, there is hope.

And that was how Mama Rose ended the dispute over the much needed cleaning items.  She reminded everyone they were in a house of God and he is looking over us to get us through the hard times. When they heard her words, they all whispered “Amen” and their prayers ran through my soul.

A side note: I am collecting money for the two women who so desperately need help.  If you are interested in helping me fund their needs, please email me at info@theculturemom.com.

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