Recovery and Restoration: Stories from CAMBA's Superstorm Sandy Workers
This month, we're shining the spotlight on our HomeBase homelessness prevention staff, who have been working to help victims of Superstorm Sandy get back on their feet. These staff members, already with full plates, have spent much of the last three months at restoration centers in hard-hit areas, connecting storm victims with much-needed temporary housing. Here's what the experience has been like for a few of these dedicated employees:
My experience working in Staten Island at the restoration center was a life-changing event. I met two sisters whose home was destroyed and whose mother was killed in the storm. The water had risen all the way up to the street signs. The mother was 89 years old, could not pull the attic ladder down... and she drowned. The oldest sister showed me a picture of the devastation and I was truly horrified. I helped the younger sister, a U.S. Postal Service employee, secure an apartment and leave with a sense of hope. Two weeks later she came back to the restoration center asking for me by name. She greeted me with a smile and I saw relief on her face. Knowing I made a small difference in a horrible situation made it all worth it. She moved in the new unit and went back to work. She said to me, "Thank you so much for your assistance, I couldn't even began to tell you how much you have helped. Thank you."
Working at the restoration center has been a phenomenal experience. Not only did I assist families with temporary housing but I listened to them. I gave them a chance to vent and sob to get some of the grief off their chest.
One particular family I will always remember. This family stood in front me, at times weeping, and I could tell they were well-off, expecting a certain level of service. In that moment I realized that they were dependent on me to provide them with things we sometime take for granted until we no longer have them. First I was able to place the family in a hotel that was convenient for them. I was then able to locate an apartment for this family and connect them with charitable organizations that assisted the family with furniture for their new place.
About two weeks later, I went to the restoration center to start my shift and the manager gave me an envelope. It was a letter from the family. They thanked me and they told me I had an impact on how they now live their life, how they are doing well and very much appreciated my time and patience. They told me that they learned to value life and that materials are just that -- materials. Reading that letter made me feel good because I was able to make a difference in someone's life.
It was very heart-rending for me at first -- People would come in yelling, and I could tell they weren't negative people. It was just the situation they were going through. I felt sorry for them that I couldn't do more... I tried to put myself in their situation. One young lady came in with two children. Eight feet of water had filled her first-floor apartment. We set her up in a hotel where could stay for six weeks. She came back in the next day and said, "Thank you, thank you," for all I had done.
One of the families I worked with through our HomeBase office was a woman with three kids -- they were displaced like everyone else. The woman was frustrated and fed up at first. But once we met with her, confirmed that she could get the help she needed, you could tell -- it was a huge sense of relief. We sent them to Legal Aid to get assistance and worked with other agencies to move them into an apartment. We got that family into housing right before Thanksgiving.
One story I will never forget. I had a man and his wife come in. As I was waiting for the hotel line to call back with their reservation, the man broke down right in front of me. He starts telling me what happened that night. The man, his wife, a cat and a ferret stayed in their home while Sandy was coming to shore. The storm was bad but they were doing good until the big wave came. He and his wife were upstairs when the wave came through. When it receded he went downstairs to check on the cat and ferret to find they had drowned. What a horrible scene this must have been. I couldn't imagine. The man blamed himself and was racked with guilt. He looked at me and said, "A house can be rebuilt, belongings can be replaced. I am thankful my wife and I are alive, but I will never have my cat and ferret back."
I have been at the restoration center in Staten Island and it was a pleasure helping many people affected by Hurricane Sandy. By listening to their stories, you can see how people's lives can change in a matter of minutes. The people my colleagues and I assess need a place to stay, whether temporary or permanent. We were able to place clients in hotels or provide them with listings of brokers (for those who could afford apartments at that time). We can see that most people did lose everything -- they have to start a new life and buy new things all over again. By working at the restoration center, it makes me realize that the information I can give to a client can change their life. And by listening to their stories, it gives them hope. We can really make a difference.
Companies Step Up to Give CAMBA Families a Happy Holiday
Kids in a few CAMBA programs had a story-book holiday last month, thanks to the generosity of some corporate angels.
Big-hearted companies acted as "Secret Santas" for young residents at two CAMBA supportive housing developments, fulfilling wish-lists and putting piles of presents under their trees. At Dumont Green in East New York, a site where CAMBA provides case management for formerly homeless families, SIMS Metal Management brought the holiday to life with a pizza party, goodie bags and gifts for 40 kids. Beardwood & Co., a SoHo design firm, sent gifts to 13 kids at Rockaway Avenue Apartments in Brownsville, also a residence for the formerly homeless.
"It's really nice," said Amber, a resident at Rockaway Avenue and mother of two-year-old Kayla. "It means a lot to the kids. I think they're very thankful... we [the parents] can't afford these gifts."
Nathalee Hollinshead, Site Director of both residences, stressed the sponsors' enormous generosity: "It's amazing -- the parents sat down with their kids and made lists... and the kids got what they asked for."
At the the other end of Brooklyn, CAMBA's Families for Kids clients enjoyed a fun-filled holiday party (and presents, of course) at the Brooklyn Marriott, thanks to the generosity of financial company DTCC. The gifts also were plentiful at our Flagstone Family Center, where more than 100 kids (and some adults) benefited from toy and clothing drives by Imani Culinary and Events Services and the American Musical and Dramatic Academy.
CAMBA Managing New Multi-Service Nonprofit Space in Bed-Stuy
CAMBA was recently awarded a contract from the NYC Human Resources Administration to manage the Bedford-Stuyvesant Multi-Service Center, a five-story, multi-use building spanning a full block at 1958 Fulton Street, between Ralph and Howard Avenues.
Built in 1912, the Multi-Service Center currently houses P.S. 28 and a number of small nonprofit organizations, including the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium, the Long Life Information and Referral Network, Purelements Dance Company and more. The Greater Brooklyn Health Coalition recently moved to the site.
Paula Greenstein, Director of Housing and Security Operations for CAMBA, is heading the management of the Multi-Service Center, adding this challenge to the many hats she wears. CAMBA also welcomes Vernisha Gil, the center's Site Director, who will oversee day-to-day operations and property management.
"It's a beautiful building with high ceilings, near subway and bus lines." Greenstein says, noting that about seven office spaces of varying sizes are available for rent. "Tenants can utilize the conference rooms during business hours and can access the 450-seat auditorium and schoolyard after school hours."
Over the past few months, she has overseen work to get the facility shipshape and ready to rent to nonprofit organizations with missions that would be suitable tenants in an elementary school environment.
While office renters must be nonprofits and can hail from any borough, for-profit groups are invited to rent conference rooms, the auditorium, the schoolyard and other spaces for special events.
Know an organization that might be interested in renting space at the Bedford-Stuyvesant Multi-Service Center? Call Vernisha Gil at 718-363-2750.
Two New Programs To Reach Out and Curb HIV
CAMBA will soon be offering two new programs to prevent HIV infection and transmission in Flatbush and East Flatbush.
One initiative, called "Project ALY," will promote parental and familial acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth. Family-driven disapproval and rejection often leads LGBT youth to engage in risky behaviors. Through a social marketing campaign, presentations and community outreach, Project ALY will encourage supportive parents of LGBT youth to share their stories and become role models for other families who are not yet as accepting.
In the second new initiative, a condom distribution program, CAMBA will target at-risk populations most in need of free condoms and HIV prevention services. As part of this program, CAMBA will turn local establishments and high-risk venues into active condom distribution sites, and will conduct safer-sex demonstrations at special neighborhood events and health fairs.
Both programs are funded by Public Health Solutions, the contract manager for HIV Prevention Services for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Health.
"With these two new programs, CAMBA continues its commitment to provide preventive services to the most vulnerable and hard-to-reach populations, while also addressing structural factors, such as homophobia and stigma, that fuel the HIV epidemic," says Elise Koffler, CAMBA Program Manager.
New Yorkers Come Up Big For CAMBA Holiday Drive
For three months, we reached out to stock the shelves of our Beyond Hunger Emergency Food Pantry, and for three months, the donations came rolling in.
Our Flatbush-based pantry was the recipient of almost 7,000 healthy food items and more than $1,300 from October through December.
"In 2012, almost one in every three Brooklyn residents reported having difficulty affording the food they need. For the half a million Brooklyn families living in poverty -- the situation is dire," said Joanne M. Oplustil, CAMBA's Executive Director. "We are grateful to school children, parents, individuals and businesses that opened their hearts and gave so generously."
Read more here about all the generous New Yorkers who made the drive a huge success.