University at Albany students, many with ties to New York City, sprang into action delivering supplies and cleaning out damaged homes after Superstorm Sandy ravaged the coast.
Claudio Gomez, senior academic adviser for the Educational Opportunity Program, said he started organizing relief efforts the day after the disaster. Seeing the devastation reminded him of the flooding that occurred in his mother’s Cobleskill home last year during tropical storms Irene and Lee.
“It brought back memories. That’s why I started to take action,” he said.
He posted a message on Facebook letting students know that he was interested in going down to the city. The response was overwhelming. “Everybody wanted to help. Trying to organize all these things was a little difficult at first,” he said.
Gomez brought together organizations such as the Student Association and the Office of Student Involvement and Leadership and set up drop boxes around the campus to collect canned food and other supplies.
UAlbany EOP students made two trips to Far Rockaway, Queens, to deliver them. Also, about 90 students participated in a Day of Service in Rockaway organized by the Rev. Sandy Damhof of UAlbany’s Interfaith Center and supported by he Office of Student Success and University Auxiliary Service.
Students were shocked at what they saw.
“The houses are empty,” said 20-year-old junior Michelle Barrera, who is from Queens. “If there were people in the house, they would have a sign on their house saying ‘please help out’ — something you don’t see in New York City.”
“It was an eye opener. You can never imagine that something that tragic can hit in the city that never sleeps,” she added.
Students stopped at a community center in Queens to distribute the coats, jackets, baby food and clothes and canned goods they had collected.
Greta J. Petry, a staff writer in UAlbany’s Office of Communications and Marketing, recalled a long line of people wrapped around the building.
The group set up four tables of supplies, forming a chain to pass out the supplies. One person stood at the back of the bus and shouted out either “water,” “canned goods” or “diapers” and everyone passed a box along.
People started lining up for supplies, even before the UAlbany group had finished unloading the bus.
“You could just see the crowds start to gravitate toward us,” said senior Joandry Escalera, who lives in New York City. “People were starting to request items, which is when we went back into the bus to see if we could find the items that they requested.”
Escalera said seeing the devastation put things in perspective.
“It was a very humbling experience,” he said.
Petry said the group had to ration its supplies, as the number of people who showed up outstripped the available donations.
“As the line grew longer and longer, it quickly became apparent we had to break open the packages of toilet paper and paper towels and restrict people to one of each item. You could have four double A batteries or two D batteries, but not both,” she said.
Flashlights were a hot commodity.
“Packs and packs of flashlights were broken open and given away one by one, and finally we ran out,” Petry said. “I heard later that there were still people in parts of Far Rockaway who had no electricity when we were there.”
She recalled that the last person in line was an elderly and frail-looking woman with a scarf tied around her white hair. “By then we had enough leftover goods that she could have whatever she wanted. She selected a few items, thanked us profusely and smiled broadly,” she said.
In addition, more than 400 UAlbany students raised $4,300 at a raffle night organized by the Residential Life Office. The proceeds were donated to All Nations Baptist Church of Woodhaven, Inc., which helps storm victims clean up and repair their homes. The students also raised $1,500 for the Food Bank for New York City and funds for the American Red Cross.
Gomez said he would like to organize another trip. He noted that it was a little more difficult to collect donations for the second trip because people thought the problem was already fixed. Full recovery will take time.
“People are still rebuilding. People are still cleaning. People are still out there looking for food,” he said. “Whenever there’s a disaster, people think you donate once and that’s it.”
Gomez said too often UAlbany students get attention for the wrong reasons — such as the Kegs and Eggs riot on St. Patrick’s Day 2011. Activities such as this put the university in a more positive light.
“This has been one of the best things I’ve seen coming out of these students,” he said.