A Week After Hurricane Sandy, Students Step Up Their Relief Work

Michael Berthel

Adelphi U. students sorted donations last weekend for delivery to areas damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Many of the items went to hard-hit Long Beach, N.Y., and another delivery is planned for Saturday.
November 08, 2012

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy and the damage it inflicted on many college campuses in the New York metropolitan area, there has been a swelling of support from students, including those who were personally affected by the storm. In the last week, students have called closed campuses to volunteer, organized donation drives, and delivered food and supplies to local residents, among other relief efforts.

At Pace University, whose main campus is in hard-hit Lower Manhattan, students are working on several clean-up projects coordinated by the New York City government and a local church. This week, the university's Student Athletic Advisory Committee is holding a clothing drive.

Pace itself did not suffer serious damage in the storm, but it had to evacuate a residence hall, and buildings lost power. Classes resumed only on Wednesday. But last weekend, a group of students, flashlights in hand, went to Southbridge Towers, a nearby apartment complex with many older residents, to deliver hot meals to the homebound.

"They really jumped to help," said Marijo Russell-O'Grady, Pace's dean of students. "Afterwards they had tears in their eyes, telling me how wonderful it was."

Jordan Hirsch, a junior majoring in film and screen studies, plans a food drive to honor emergency workers. "I know a lot of students are involved with helping victims," he said, "and I thought it would be a great idea to have students thank these first responders."

The drive will be called "The Guardians of the Holiday Meal," said Mr. Hirsch, an intern at Paramount Pictures. "The first responders were like our guardians," he said, "so we're taking that theme to the food drive."

Sleeping on Cots in a Gym

Service learning is a graduation requirement at Pace, and Stephen J. Friedman, the university's president, estimates that last year students performed around 45,000 hours of community service. This year he expects much of the service to be focused on storm relief.

"Many of these students themselves were impacted by Hurricane Sandy," said Mr. Friedman. "It's particularly a noble thing to do for students who themselves are sleeping on cots in a gym, to go out and help other people."

Pace has set up an emergency-assistance table to connect students and employees who are still suffering from the effects of the storm with resources on and off the campus.

In the Bronx, the State University of New York's Maritime College was closed until Monday, but that did not prevent some students from taking action.

After the storm, they asked the university what they could do to help, said Arianne Romeo, assistant dean of students. While students have been going door-to-door to provide neighbors with necessities such as water, medicine, and batteries, the university is being used as a staging area, with beds, food, and shelter for Federal Emergency Management Agency relief and recovery workers.

"I'm really proud of our staff and students," said Ms. Romeo. "The outpour of support and energy is incredible."

'Humbling Experience'

Last weekend at Adelphi University, students and staff loaded up vans with bags of clothing and boxes of cleaning supplies to deliver to Freeport, N.Y., a staging area for relief to the city of Long Beach, one of the hardest-hit municipalities on Long Island. More than 100 volunteers also spent Saturday collecting clothing, food, and supplies.

"We worked a long, long day," said Michael J. Berthel, senior assistant director of Adelphi's Center for Student Involvement. The university collected more than 13,500 items, as well as about $1,000 for the American Red Cross, 200 thank-you cards for emergency workers, and 155 pints of blood. Since then, volunteers have continued to collect more items to donate to organizations such as the Salvation Army, shelters, and churches. Adelphi students plan a trip this weekend to the Rockaway area of Queens—which was hit with flooding, wind damage, and a devastating fire—to help run a donation center, assist with cleanup, and reach out to housebound elderly residents.

"Students on Facebook are posting things like 'It's a humbling experience,' and it's positive to see that reaction," said Mr. Berthel. "A lot of students were personally affected, some coming and saying, 'I lost my house.' But they're here going to shelters when they could easily be complaining."

Lauren Ciuffo, a senior psychology major, has been involved in community-service projects throughout her time at Adelphi, but the donation drive and other relief efforts, she said, were special.

"Since it's something that happened here, affected people here, we've come closer together as a community," Ms. Ciuffo said. "You pass people in the halls and hear someone offering everything they have—to stay in their room, to give food. It's brought us together as a student community."

Farther Afield

Even universities in areas that did not suffer damage from Hurricane Sandy have been giving their support.

Landmark College, a two-year institution in Putney, Vt., for students with learning disabilities, has been busy planning community-outreach programs.

"I had students coming up to me asking, 'Hey, can we do anything? How will we be able to give back?' I was blown away," said Meghan R. Benzel, an alumna and volunteer coordinator with AmeriCorps. "Before I could plan anything, they were already coming to me with ideas."

The students wanted to hold donation drives, write thank-you notes to volunteers, and plan trips. On Friday nine of them will travel to New York City to team up with the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance. A trip to New Jersey over spring break is in the works.

"With the recovery and work that will need to be done, trips will be ongoing," said Ms. Benzel.

Students at Lehigh University, in Bethlehem, Pa., who missed classes last week because of power outages have been collaborating with faculty, staff, and alumni to brainstorm ways to help. The university's Community Service Office is leading a project to design and sell T-shirts to raise funds for the Red Cross.

Students also plan to help with recovery projects to return communities to their pre-disaster norms. "We will be there, and are going to be there, for many years out," said Carolina A. Hernandez, director of the service office. "Sometimes we lose touch of what's going on in years after a disaster," she said, "so we're going to make sure to be present and committed to the community."

Some colleges are recognizing students' volunteer efforts with financial rewards. Saint Peter's University, in Jersey City, N.J., announced that it would offer $20,000 scholarships for tuition and housing to up to 15 students who volunteered in communities affected by the hurricane or otherwise helped victims of the storm. Students who live on the campus will be eligible for the scholarship, university officials said.