Lessons In Community Service, Post-Sandy

As families struggle to get back on their feet in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, other families throughout Brooklyn, New York City and the country are rallying to support them, sending supplies, food, clothing, toys, money, and their own time and elbow grease. But as family trips down to the shore transition from one-time donation drops to regular visits to lend a hand, the Sandy relief effort is also turning into a teachable moment for kids, as well as adults.

Peter Hobbs’s kids are three and two-years-old, so they are too young to grasp what is going on, but when the family headed out that first Sunday from their Prospect Heights home to Gerritsen Beach bearing supplies, his daughter wanted to know what they were doing.

“So we explained that, remember the hurricane? Well, there are people who have lost their homes and power, and there are kids who have lost their toys,” said Hobbs. “Now, in the weeks since, she keeps gathering her toys into baskets and saying she can give them away.”

Although they didn’t actually give her used toys away, opting instead to collect new items for donation, Hobbs said that he is aware that this was just her way of figuring out what’s going on.

Kai Song, 8, joined neighbor Peter Frolick of Aegir Boardworks and Auguste Fried, 8, at the Help DUMBO Rebuild fundraiser.

Kai Song, eight, has also been making sense of the changes going on around him. His mother, Randi Song, owns Half Pint Citizens, a children’s clothing store at 41 Washington Street in DUMBO, and although their store managed to escape the worst of the flooding and remained open to help residents keep warm and stay connected, electronically, Kai could see that many people weren’t as lucky.

That’s why, at the Help DUMBO Rebuild fundraiser, he made sure to join DUMBO Business Improvement District Executive Director Alexandria Sica on stage to announce the winners of the free raffle. As a professional DJ himself – the city’s youngest – he was used to interacting with the community, and this was one small way that he could contribute.

There are also kids who are old enough to understand what’s going on, and who are volunteering and donating to relief efforts directly, as part of an inborn desire to help others.

Abdoulaye Coumbassa, 16, second from right, watches a fellow volunteer serve food.

Sixteen-year-old Abdoulaye Coumbassa has been living in Red Hook for three years and his Election Day stint serving food at the Calvary Baptist Church at 773 Hicks Street was his first foray into volunteerism in his own community. “I just want to help,” he said between dispensing large spoonfuls of pasta onto a neighbor’s plate. “It makes me feel good. I’m not used to doing this, so it’s something to help people in any way I can.”

Two spots down from him on the food assembly line stood John Berryhill, 33, who grew up around the corner before moving to Manhattan for work. He came back to evacuate his mother from her fifth floor apartment in Red Hook. “She has no power and no elevator, so she is at my house,” he said, “I want to help people and it’s my neighborhood. The community works together. Everybody is family.”

Three years ago, when Kate Godsil-Freeman was in fifth grade, she learned about the Lost Boys of Sudan – groups of tens of thousands of boys who had been orphaned or displaced by the ravages of civil war and then had to flee additional violence after Sudan declared its independence. Their stories were so upsetting that she decided to do something to try and help them.

Kate and Rebecca Godsil-Freeman and their friends hold bake sale fundraisers for various causes.

The result was a bake sale fundraiser, for which Kate and her younger sister Rebecca, then in third grade, baked and then sold everything to neighbors in their Boerum Hill community. They raised “a few hundred dollars” and donated it to UNICEF.

Since then, Kate and Rebecca, now ages 13 and 10 and in eighth and fifth grade, respectively, have held numerous bake sales and candy fundraisers on their own, as well as participated in school volunteer projects. So it was no surprise that their reaction to the devastation wrought by Sandy was again to take action.

“With Sandy, I didn’t think anything would happen because last time [with Hurricane Irene, it] was nothing. Then I was surprised that so many people died. It was so unexpected,” said Kate, who joined a friend and the friend’s mother on a trip to a local church that was collecting donations through Occupy Sandy.

“We made packages of soap, toiletries, band-aids… I was happy [to see] tons of volunteers, food baskets, and clothes,” she said. “There were so many people chipping in, but the more that came in, the more I realized that more people still need it.”

Rebecca helped out, too, bringing canned food in for the P.S. 261 food drive for Sandy survivors, and staffing the bake sale table during Election Day, as voters headed to and from the ballot box. The kids made around $100 from that sale, charging voters on a “pay as you wish” scale.

“My mom’s on the PTA and she had the idea of people choosing the price because people are usually more generous when they can choose,” explained Rebecca. “And then you can raise even more money.”

The girls’ mother, Rachel, also noted that her daughters have taken to asking relatives for donations to their favorite causes in lieu of birthday or Christmas gifts. Previous causes have included the World Wildlife Fund and Doctors Without Borders.

“It’s hard to take credit,” she said. “It’s self-generated by them, not by us. We as a family make contributions to political causes and are engaged, we all do volunteer work, but it was all them.”

Asked what they enjoy most about volunteerism, Rebecca said that “it just makes you feel really happy, knowing you’re helping someone. If someone lost their home and you’re giving food and clothes, you’re really making a difference in someone’s life.”

Kate agreed. “I think that it makes you realize how lucky you are. Instead of feeling bad for people, [you] do something,” she said. “My parents raised me, saying it’s always about giving, not receiving. They always tell me that when you’re lucky, spread it around, help out where you can.”

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