Rockaway communities still feeling emotional toll of Sandy
by Jess Berry
Oct 30, 2014 | 3212 views | 0 0 comments | 26 26 recommendations | email to a friend | print
It seems unbelievable that two years have passed since Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast, and though the initial shock of Sandy has passed, many families are still dealing not only with the economic consequences of rebuilding homes and businesses, but the mental and emotional struggle that brews underneath the surface after disaster strikes.

In communities across the coasts in Brooklyn and Queens, anxiety levels have risen, divorce rates are higher and many people, of all ages, are in need of help.

For a number of districts, that help has come in the form of Partnership with Children (PWC), a program that provides social and emotional support for youth in New York City’s public schools.

Two years ago, PWC was sent into a number of schools across the city to address immediate needs after Sandy hit, with funding provided through Project Hope.

PWC Program Director Dwarym Ruiz explained that the Department of Education approached her after the storm to bring the program into schools in communities that had been hit the hardest.

“Project Hope was really good at the moment, getting out there and getting the word out and providing immediate support,” Ruiz said.

Katie Grady, the principal at PS 104 in Far Rockaway, agreed. In her school, one in three of her staff members were displaced from their homes, including Grady herself and one of her assistant principals.

The problems were exacerbated by the fact that her school struggles with a number of other issues, including high poverty rates, a large number of students coming to them from homeless shelters and high unemployment, particularly after the storm hit.

“Initially much of the work that PWC did with our families and children was reactionary in terms of, this is the need right now, the focus is Hurricane Sandy,” Grady said. “I couldn’t have done it without them.”

But under the grant from Project Hope, PWC counselors were limited in the services they could provide to students, in that they could only focus on Sandy. Then, after working with students for a year, principals were informed that the funding from Project Hope would be cut and PWC would be removed from their schools.

Stephen Grill, principal of PS/MS 114 in Belle Harbor on the Rockaways, whose auditorium was flooded with ten feet of water and whose neighborhood “looked like a war zone,” said that he immediately responded to try and keep PWC in his school.

“I think we were notified in September of last year that we would be losing Partnership with Children because they were losing their grants, and I pushed where I could to get the additional money,” Grill said, “because they were so instrumental in continuing to help during the aftermath.”

Both Grill and Grady managed to get funding to keep PWC in their schools, which they said has been incredibly important for the development of their students after the crisis.

“Now here it is two years later, and the issues are all still there, but they’re coming out in different ways,” Grady said. “When [Sandy] initially happened, [PWC] was addressing those concerns and fears that children and families had. Now it’s two years later and everyone in the city thinks that Sandy is over and done with, but it’s far from over and done with out on the peninsula.”

State Senator Joe Addabbo agreed, noting that services tend to calm down after time has elapsed, but that does not mean that problems cease to exist for the families in his district.

“Right after Sandy we had a lot of these groups, a lot of these non-profits going to help parents, the homeowners, the tenants, the children,” Addabbo said. “A lot of youth programs held sessions post-Sandy. They wanted the kids to talk about Sandy, not bottle it up. And then, of course, it calms down, but the problem still does exist for many children.”

Ruiz explained that getting children to talk about their feelings is a large part of PWC. Counselors are in the school from Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., working with the kids. They teach children that they have the ability to turn a negative situation into something positive through perspective and attitude.

Plus, under the new grants after Project Hope ended, PWC has more license and freedom to do more social work with families and their children not only in the schools, but in their own homes. Ruiz said this has been a huge advantage for PWC and the families it serves.

“When this [grant] came along, the freedom and the ability to provide numerous services on the clinical and therapeutic support side was a huge advantage, because now we can actually work with families and look at what’s really going on,” she said.

“It’s not just Sandy triggers and behaviors, but it is also other things, and now we’re able to look at those and work with them,” Ruiz added.

Both schools are continuing to benefit from PWC services, with staff, parents and children all receiving help from counselors. Schools are grateful for the help for overworked guidance counselors, and parents are grateful that they and their children have someone they can talk to.

And while PWC and the schools that work with them are all looking to keep moving forward and making progress in the aftermath of Sandy, the message is clear that two years does not erase crisis from a child’s life.

“Yes, in time, two years sounds like a lot of time and things should be done,” Ruiz said, “but if you look at it from a trauma perspective, these things don’t start to emerge until the dust settles, and that’s what we’re seeing now.”

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