'What can I do?': New Yorkers seek ways to help

Associated Press Modified: November 3, 2012 at 2:32 pm •  Published: November 3, 2012

"People have opened their hearts," Sweeney said. "With Staten Islanders, there's zero degrees of separation. This is the kind of thing Staten Islanders do."

In Queens, where Siegel, the real estate agent, was packing food and supplies on Saturday, she was joined by fellow teammates who had all planned to run Sunday's marathon together. Mayor Michael Bloomberg had canceled the race the night before. So the team decided to meet anyway and keep an earlier plan to work on hurricane relief, followed by a brainstorming session for their next marathon, in Pennsylvania next week.

On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where residents were relatively unaffected by Sandy, volunteer coordinator Shelly Fine found a similar spirit of resolve.

Fine, a former assistant schools superintendent who is trained in rescue efforts, put out an appeal for volunteers and found himself fielding hundreds of calls and emails. "People were very forthcoming, offering their time and their skills," he said. "They're saying, 'What can I do?'"

Fine found that the best use of his own time was sitting in front of the computer and matching offers to needs — for example, two shelters closed and he had to redirect people to another. One shelter found it needed hygienic wipes to clean cots. Another needed trained medical personnel.

Elliot Zweig, 32, works at a nonprofit think tank, and found himself wanting to help out on Wednesday. He contacted Fine through a blog called the West Side Rag. Soon, he and his wife, a nurse practitioner, were staffing the medical room of a shelter on 84th Street. It was the first time Zweig had volunteered in a similar way since 9/11.

"I watched the TV news, saw all the tragedy and devastation, and I felt very spared — I was safe and comfortable," Zweig said. "We were the lucky ones, who could help."

This week, it's been hard to log onto a website of any organization — a school, a gym, even a store — and not see a reference to Sandy and efforts to help. The 92nd Street Y, in Manhattan, offered families free arts classes and gym time. PTA groups at schools discussed bake sales to raise money.

On a larger scale, NBC held a benefit concert Friday night, featuring Jon Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen and other stars, with donations going to the Red Cross. Barneys New York, the luxury store, was giving 10 percent of its proceeds from Sunday sales to the Red Cross.

Some recovery efforts involved not a group, but merely an individual seeking to help a neighbor. Julia Strom spent three nights — from 6 p.m. to 9 a.m. — caring for a woman in her 90s by candlelight. Doing so "was a privilege; it heightens and beautifies life," the 53-year-old Strom said.

Sometimes, agreed Pentecost, of the Lower Eastside Girls Club, it's the littlest things that count the most — what she called "small acts of great love."

Her group was planning to take the thousands of dollars raised this weekend and stuff a bunch of $20 bills into envelopes for families who need to pay that next cellphone bill. Or stock the refrigerator.

"People have to throw out everything in their fridges," she noted. "This is restock-the-fridge money."

"I understand the need for FEMA and the Red Cross and all the rest," she added. "But we're talking about no lines, no red tape. Just immediate help. These people have suffered enough."

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Associated Press Writer Verena Dobnik contributed to this report.