The families we serve in low income communities are a resilient group that perseveres through the toughest circumstances, ranging from high crime to scarce resources, but when Hurricane Sandy hit, the magnitude of the storm brought our families face to face with new challenges. The path to recovery was uncertain for families and for the organizations like Sheltering Arms that support them. Without any playbook to tell us the best course of action, we turned to each other for solutions.
Our Virginia Day Early Childhood Education Center was no exception to the storm’s devastation. Families in the Lower East Side housing projects have relied on the center for generations to provide a safe place for their children to begin a lifetime of academic success. The center empowers families with average annual income of $16,000 to pursue their own professional goals without sacrificing their children’s education. The center has also been a resource where caregivers can access the latest tools and information about child development and continue educating their children at home.
But on October 29, 2012, this centerpiece of community life was destroyed overnight. Three feet of sea water flooded the center. A deluge of sewage from the adjacent main infected everything the water touched. Carpets, furniture, toys, and technology were all ruined. Hundreds of books from the library on site could not be recovered. Even playground structures washed away. With such extensive damage, it was difficult to imagine the center could ever return to its role as a critical resource to Lower East Side families.
Families living in the surrounding buildings suffered too. Many were completely displaced.
Those who stayed lacked electricity and sometimes climbed eight or more flights of darkened stairs to their homes each day, gathering water from fire hydrants below. “It was surreal,” reflected Maria Mendez, a parent of three children at Virginia Day and a long time Lower East Side Resident. “I watched the river come over the highway from my window. Cars were floating away.” Mendez’s own car was totaled in the storm. “I had just gone food shopping, and all the food spoiled,” she adds. “You can’t have such young children in that environment, without heat or toilets that flush. It was so cold then too.”
In the wake of the storm, we expected our families would have to focus on their immediate survival needs, which might jeopardize the quality of their youngest children’s education. However, allowing our center to be closed, even for a short period of time, was not acceptable to the families we serve. They insisted on Virginia Day’s speedy return to their lives. “We couldn’t wait to come back. We love Virginia Day. We love the staff,” says Mendez. “It’s more than just dropping my kids off and having someone watching my children. I feel as though it’s my family. Even the cooks know the children by name!”
Although many had little more to offer than their time, parents and caregivers volunteered to join staff in removing refuse from the center and cleaning it from top to bottom for weeks after the storm. Fathers of children at the center volunteered to paint the walls and remove mold and debris. Several parents helped salvage remaining classroom items, giving up evenings and weekends to pitch in. The storm prevented families at Virginia Day from celebrating the events the children look forward to each year, such as the Halloween celebration and Thanksgiving dinner for families, so families showed unprecedented support for a Christmas lunch. One mother donated Christmas decorations and even a Christmas tree to bring the spirit of the holidays back to Virginia Day.
With the support of our Lower East Side neighbors, we were able to rebuild and reopen Virginia Day in only one month—an astounding feat for a group composed of so many volunteers charged with repairing more than $175,000 in damage. Even more astounding were the efforts families made to regain a place for their children in the program after it reopened.
During Virginia Day’s recovery, all families were given the option to permanently relocate their children to another day care. It would have been easier for families to pursue alternatives, but every single family returned after Virginia Day re-opened. “Parents were just so glad to be back,” says Mendez. “The kids were really excited too. It was a little sad because there weren’t any toys for them to play with at first, but they were happy to be home.”
When Georgina Franco, Virginia Day’s site director, was asked why she thought families remained loyal to the center, she said, “Families know that their children really learn here,” referring to the emphasis we place on academic rigor. Many students who graduate from Virginia Day start kindergarten in the honors track, and 90% of them meet or exceed developmental standards after just one year in the program, up from 40% in the beginning of the year. Mendez agrees, touting the support the staff give her in continuing her children’s education at home and in keeping her informed of her children’s academic progress.
A year after the storm, Virginia Day is back, but work remains. The playground, managed by the New York City Housing Authority, remains in disrepair. It stands as a reminder of the damage wrought by Sandy—both to physical structures and the institutions that support them. Yet our bonds with the community are stronger than ever. Sandy revealed the limits of our physical infrastructure and financial resources, but proved we are a community rich in assets: resilience, loyalty, determination, and care for each other. With the power these assets afford, we’ve learned we can weather the fiercest storms, even the hurricanes.