On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, an impromptu FaceBook post from a father at The Anderson School led to the collection of more than 900 cardboard boxes and garbage bags brimming with supplies – everything from kid-sized parkas to battery-powered nebulizers, apple sauce cups, and copies of the latest Wimpy Kid installment.
In Red Hook, Brooklyn, so many parents from nearby P.S. 29 John M. Harrigan and P.S. 58 The Carroll showed up at water-logged P.S. 15 Patrick F. Daly to help move textbooks to the school’s temporary location that an endeavor that was supposed to take all day, took less than two hours. And by mid-Sunday parents, accustomed to providing dozens of mini cupcakes for their school’s bake sales and occasional teacher appreciation nights, in Cobble Hill, Park Slope and Carroll Gardens were being told they didn’t need to make any more weekend meals. Call back in a few days, the parents anxious to do something – anything – were instructed. We’ve got enough givers.
New York City’s public school PTA’s which have morphed, in recent years, into professional-grade fundraising operations with a laser but often insular focus on their own schools became a Sandy force to contend with this past weekend, as ever-on-call members used their varied skills, their long email lists, and their organizing acumen to plan everything from massive supply distribution efforts, to hot meal preparation, and school relocation operations around the city.
Public school parents have managed to feed thousands of hurricane survivors miles from their own schools, shelter dwellers, and folks stranded in the Far Rockaways and to provide thousands of people with the kind of small, but crucial gifts that folks who know the value of a well-run box top drive understand particularly well: The little stuff counts. A warm blanket might make a second grader sleep better. A flashlight and a good paperback could ease a mother’s worries. And as for Clorox wipes? Even a school that isn’t being used as a homeless shelter can’t have enough of them.
“The PTA’s were calling, texting, emailing from the middle of the week to see what they could do,” said Laurie Windsor, the president of the Community Education Council for District 20, which covers a relatively unscathed chunk of western Brooklyn that includes Sunset Park and parts of Bensonhurst.
Accustomed to organizing large, often fancy,fundraising events, persuading their peers to give generously, and meting out tasks for fall festivals and elaborate science and book fairs, these men and women – most in neighborhoods that have been unaffected – found themselves, in many cases, canceling their own fundraising events for this upcoming week. Instead of selling tickets to wine-and-cheese school socials and organizing the last of the class potlucks, they were persuading their neighbors to make multiple trips to CVS for sanitary napkins, coolers filled with ice, and canned tomatoes.
As residents in far flung communities – the Rockaways in Queens, Red Hook in Brooklyn, and parts of Staten Island, among others – have cried neglect, some of these PTA’s, much like certain church groups during New Orlean’s Hurricane Katrina, reached out to folks who say city workers and the Red Cross have put them at the bottom of their lists.
Through the help of a firefighter friend in the Rockaways who organized a door-to-door request drive, Mike Klein, the Anderson School parent, was able to inform fellow parents with children at Manhattan public schools near him, what was needed in Queens’ remote seaside enclaves.
“We tapped into the network,” he said, “and it turned into a massive movement,” involving the efforts of parents at The Anderson School and P.S. 87 William Sherman on the Upper West Side, and Hunter College High School on the Upper East Side.
By mid-weekend, dozens of gassed-up SUV’s usually packed with kids heading to soccer and karate practice, were parked outside of The Firehouse Restaurant on Columbus Avenue, a sports bar owned by P.S. 87 parents. Parents spent hours unloading their goods. By Sunday night a police barricade truck had landed in southern Queens where parents at several schools were delivering diapers and canned soups to the doors of the stranded.
Even as Mayor Michael Bloomberg hit the airwaves Sunday, insisting that money was preferred over sundry supplies, in Brooklyn parent coordinators at dozens of schools were emailing lists to parents. At P.S./I.S. 229 in Dyker Heights, fourth graders were being asked to bring in rubber gloves. Sixth graders were being asked to bring in shampoo and conditioner. And seventh grade parents were charged with socks. New ones, only.
“As you know, some families, lost almost everything,” read the email sent to parents. “We are asking that each child bring in at least one item. But please feel free to send in as much as you can.”