Educators in Sandy-Struck Areas United in Cleanup and Recovery

Superstorm Sandy may be gone from the headlines, but the recovery is far from over. The storm rampaged across the Eastern Seaboard, destroying entire communities and leaving tens of thousands homeless just as the bitter cold of winter set in. Many who suffered losses from the storm were NEA members from across the mid-Atlantic and up to New England. Tragically, two members from New York lost their lives.

Volunteers in Stafford County, New Jersey

But educators are a caring and dynamic group of people, and they immediately sprang into action to help their colleagues, neighbors and friends. New York and New Jersey were especially hard hit, and NYSUT and NJEA members have been steadfast in the ongoing recovery efforts.

New Jersey Educators Lead Local Cleanup Efforts after Sandy

Just hours after Superstorm Sandy pummeled his seaside New Jersey town and left it in ruins, Stafford County teacher Michael Dunlea set to work. He reached out to his network of fellow educators and put together a community-wide volunteer force to help with clean up and recovery. Word quickly spread, and soon Dunlea and his team became the go-to source for assistance.

One call came from a woman who said her sister and brother-in-law needed help at their house on Long Beach Island. Dunlea was the first to arrive, and he found the couple holed up inside their home with their windows sealed, portable heater blasting, and blooms of mold spreading along the walls.

“They were emotionally paralyzed. They didn’t know where to begin and they were simply overwhelmed,” says Dunlea, who teachers second-grade at Ocean Acres Elementary School.

The couple — a Vietnam Vet and his wife — rode out the storm at home and thought they’d escaped the brunt of it when Sandy suddenly intensified in the wee hours of the night. In just twenty minutes, the flood waters rose four feet, and they lost everything they owned.

It happened to be Veteran’s Day when Dunlea arrived at the house, and three airmen from nearby McGuire Air Force Base came to help strip the walls down to the studs and remove the toxic mold. “It was the greatest way to thank a veteran,” he says.

Dunlea is an America Achieves Teacher Fellow, a Stafford Township Innovative Teacher Award winner, and a former Ocean County Teacher of the Year. But the residents of his seaside town will probably remember him as the guy who rallied his fellow educators and neighbors to help them recover from the worst storm to hit the area in half a century. It’s more than a month later, and Dunlea and his team of teachers are still at it.

After the Storm, Cleanup Efforts Needed a S.T.A.R.T.

More than 90 percent of the homes in Stafford County were damaged or destroyed by Superstorm Sandy, thoughDunlea was among the fortunate few, only losing power for a few days.

“We live in the same town, and while I escaped with everything intact, just five miles away they lost everything,” he says. “It was unnerving how close to personal disaster and financial ruin we were.”

Joe Mangino and MIchael Dunlea

When the power came back on, he posted to Facebook that he was going to go out to see how he could help. Fourteen people asked to join him –all fellow Stafford county educators, many of whom had suffered their own storm damage.

The next day, Dunlea posted to Facebook that we would be going out again, and the number of volunteers joining him grew to 29. Just one week later, there were 200 volunteers from more than 10 states and the District of Columbia.

There were so many volunteers, Dunlea wasn’t sure how to efficiently match them with houses and families in need. That’s when Dunlea, a nine-year NEA member, decided to organize.

First, he decided on a name for his volunteer force: S.T.A.R.T. – Stafford Teachers and Residents Together.

“I purposely placed the word teacher in the name of the group because I felt people should think about who they so freely criticize in political conversations,” Dunlea says.

Then, along with co-founder Joe Mangino, he set up a Facebook page for S.T.A.R.T., had flyers printed, worked with the town to set up a base for operations at the community center, and teamed with other organizations to coordinate relief efforts. People began posting volunteer opportunities and supply needs on Facebook, and when a local radio station aired a PSA about S.T.A.R.T. , calls for help started pouring in.

We’re People Who Happen to Be Teachers

 Dunlea says the storm brought out sides of his colleagues he’d never seen before and humanized everyone in ways he wouldn’t have imagined before the storm. But when he remembers the stories of what his neighbors suffered through, he’s not surprised by the outpouring of support.

They are stories he’ll never forget, like the one of the 88 year-old-man who stood in three feet of cold bay water for six hours while he held his wife in safety on the kitchen table. Days later, when he complained of leg pain, a START volunteer took him to urgent care where they discovered a festering infection.

“Same guy, loved to cook, and a lifetime of handwritten recipes were all lost to the flood,” says Dunlea. “So another volunteer took the books of recipes, dried them out, and copied them all and rebound them. He openly wept when he saw what she had done for him, a complete stranger.”

There have been lots of tears in the weeks since the storm. The S.T.A.R.T. volunteers had to help families throw to the curb a lifetime of personal mementos that were either contaminated or destroyed by floodwaters – wedding and photo albums, love letters and poems, yearbooks and scrapbooks are now mixed in with the mountains of debris outside people’s homes.

“We also had a difficult time with children,” says Dunlea. “We were throwing away all of their toys.”

Holiday toy drives will help bring smiles back to the kids, and Dunlea also wants to replace the decorations people lost with the hope of bringing them a little holiday cheer. But even though he admits it sounds trite, he believes the real gift is in the giving.

“I honestly believe we made our little piece of the world a better place to be and it felt great to see people accept your help and to see it given,” he says. “It was redeeming to our volunteers. We’re just people helping other people, and we happen to be teachers.” 

NYSUT volunteers loaded trucks with supplies for storm victims.

New York Educators Respond Quickly and Continually

In the days and weeks following the storm, New York educators have boarded buses to Coney Island, Staten Island, Long Island and all other impacted areas in between to deliver supplies and help residents clean up and clear out their flood-ravaged homes.

They’ve held pasta dinners for hungry families, stayed late to hold afterschool sessions in libraries to help students without power, and delivered Target gift cards to Nassau County locals hit hardest by the storm.

NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue, who continues to coordinate NYSUT relief efforts, said: “It was heartbreaking to hear how long these people were without power, not to mention the losses they face. We have a great team in headquarters and in the field, and we will continue to do all we can to assist in providing needed assistance when and where we can.”

The NYSUT headquarters office looks like a supply warehouse with boxes of donated goods piled to the ceiling, and that’s after truck and busloads of supplies had been delivered to hard-hit communities.

Communities like Coney Island. When church there sent out word that they had hungry storm victims in need, NYSUTs response was swift.

‘This Is the Lady from the Teachers Union’

NYSUT Mid-Hudson Regional Staff Director Ann Harrison arranged for the immediate delivery of truckloads of food donated from the mid-Hudson region to a church-run soup kitchen on Staten Island.

“One church member who helped unload was wearing a Metropolitan Transit Authority uniform, and once he heard my name he shouted to all the other helpers: ‘This is the lady from the teachers union we were told about,’ so our efforts were much appreciated,” Harrison said.

The food helped provide daily meals on Coney Island, where senior citizens had been trapped in dozens of large apartment buildings because the elevators weren’t working. The church initiated immediate deliveries of food to senior citizens who hadn’t eaten in three days.

NYSUT volunteers passed boxes and boxes of supplies, like this blanket.

NYSUT educators worked around the clock to help at the large staging area near the Coney Island amusement park where thousands of people waiting in line for hours to receive a warm meal, a blanket, baby and cleaning supplies, and some kind words.

Sometimes it’s the worst of circumstances that brings out the best in people. Back at NYSUT Headquarters, a retiree who dropped off a carload of supplies wouldn’t accept a receipt for her donation.

“The receipt is in my heart,” she said.

How You Can Help

Donations accepted at:

New Jersey Education Association Hurricane Relief Fund

New York State United Teachers

NEA Health Information Disaster Relief Fund

For more information, visit S.T.A.R.T. on Facebook.