Operation “Wilton ‘Hearts’ Staten Island”

In just 36 hours, a handful of dedicated Wilton friends organized an outpouring of donated supplies, food and water, tools and more, plus over $1,500 in cash contributions to directly help Hurricane Sandy victims on devastated Staten Island.

Not again! The power’s been out for days. Our roads still aren’t completely cleared of fallen trees or downed wires. School’s out again, and with Tuesday’s Election Day another one off for the kids, plus a Nor’easter bearing down on Fairfield County, life after Hurricane Sandy has been pretty darn annoying here in Wilton.

But it’s nothing compared to what residents of Staten Island and other communities battered by the storm are going through.

Most everyone here has maintained that perspective. In fact, a lot of people started asking what they could do to help very shortly after Sandy moved on. Wilton resident, Bernadette Hess, captured what many of us felt: “People see others who are struggling, their houses were decimated, they have no food—people want to help. They say, ‘What do we do?’”

Eve Donovan, another resident in town, was thinking the same thing. She turned to her network of friends.

“This past Friday night, I put an open-ended question up on Facebook: ‘How can a local family here help?’ Michele and Mark Bennett responded that they wanted to help too. Torie [Clancy] came back with, ‘I know someone in Staten Island, where they’re housing evacuees at the Hilton. She said we could get supplies to them, but I don’t have a connection to shipping or trucking companies.’ So I posted that need on Facebook. Immediately Khedjia Nottingham—a former 20-year Wilton resident, responded, ‘We have a shipping company, and we can get you a truck to Staten Island.’

Eve added, “That’s the beauty of social media.”

Soon this small-but-mighty Wilton friends network had put a plan into action. They called their ad hoc effort, “Operation: Wilton ‘Hearts’ Staten Island.”

Torie’s Staten Island contact was her long-time friend Nicole Keeley Girellini, who coordinated efforts there and told Torie what supplies were needed. She specified the Staten Island Hilton Garden Inn—an evacuation spot for people whose homes had been damaged or destroyed—as the prime location helping those affected. Top on their list of needs were cots and air mattresses for the evacuees sleeping in the hotel ballroom.

The Wilton group emailed friends and posted on Facebook, asking for clothes, coats, diapers, personal care items, non-perishable food and cleaning supplies. The group would pick-up anything that people wanted to donate, especially money to help buy that much-needed sleep gear. They also asked anyone wanting to make donations to bring things to the warehouse of Premier Worldwide in Norwalk on Sunday morning.

Even after moving from Wilton to Florida, Khedjia and her husband, Maurice Acuna, still run their shipping company, Premier Worldwide, out of Norwalk. They offered a driver and a truck to make multiple trips as needed for everything the group could collect. Given how expensive—and restricted—gasoline currently is, that contribution would be crucial to making the mission come together.

A second Wilton group takes up a collection

Unbeknownst to the Operation: Wilton Hearts group, another set of Wilton friends had a similar idea. This past weekend, Jen Dahl, Teresa Waldron and Bernadette Hess started amassing items to donate to those in need on Staten Island, where Teresa had grown up. They sent an email to their network of friends and acquaintances in town, asking them to contribute as well.  

In addition to Teresa’s personal connection to the New York borough, Jen and Bernadette were each motivated by their ongoing effort to teach their own children, who range in age from 6 to 12, how to be good people conscious of helping others.

“Our families spend a lot of time together, and the last few storms neither of us had a generator, but this time, we did. We started talking to our kids about how hard it is when you don’t have water, and how we are so lucky—we have running water. Yes it’s been super annoying, but it’s really not that bad. I heard something that resonated, especially when you’re trying to teach your kids: ‘Small action, big impact.’ This idea became something easy for the kids to participate in,” Bernadette explained.

When their email started to go viral, their kids got to see how their moms’ small action had a huge impact.

“They were so excited yesterday when cars started coming down our driveway,” Jen recounted. “Within an hour of sending the email the first person came. Then it was a steady flow all day. The kids were waiting by the door, each time they’d run out and say ‘Thank you!’ They were so excited. I would say 50 percent of the people who came I had never seen. That really made an impact on the kids. It wasn’t just their classmates, it was from the larger community.” 

It was clear that the larger Wilton community was eager to do what they could. “People kept saying ‘Thank you!’ to us. They were so happy to have a place to put their resources and help,” Bernadette said.

But Bernadette and Jen didn’t realize that another group—Operation: Wilton Hearts—was also sending around emails, which also went viral. Pretty soon a lot of Wilton residents had gotten word of one or both efforts.

“My sister-in-law who lives in Wilton said she got an email three times,” laughed Jen.

The two groups collaborate

When Michele Bennett, one of the organizers of Operation: Wilton Hearts, got the Dahl-Waldron-Hess email, she reached out to say, Let’s help each other help those in Staten Island. Michele offered to put the items Bernadette and Jen collected on the Premier vehicle going to Staten Island, and get everything from Wilton to their target, quickly.

That concept of “small worlds” and crossover networks became thematic for how Wilton would help Staten Island. “Teresa knows the owner of the Hilton Gardens,” Bernadette marveled. With Teresa’s connections to the Staten Island Hilton, and Torie’s friend helping coordinate at the same hotel, it became even more of a small world linking Wilton to Staten Island.

“It’s funny—and cool. I think it is very small, it sounds like everybody knows everybody,” Bernadette added.

Small action, big impact—huge response

Thanks to the dual effort and multiple versions of emails and shared Facebook postings, scores of people turned out to help. The result was both groups collected an enormous amount of supplies intended for those most affected by Sandy. In fact, they got more than they ever expected.

In addition, Operation: Wilton Hearts had received enough money by that point to buy 50 air mattresses. They were also helped by a few Wilton businesses that chipped in: CT Coffee donated water; Keough’s Hardware gave rakes, contractor bags, and work gloves; Georgetown Package Store donated $100 and four cases of water; and Arena Hairstyling gave a cash donation as well.

On Sunday morning, the Premier Worldwide van went to Jen Dahl’s house first, where several families had gathered to help load all that had been collected: baby wipes, diapers, warm clothes, ready-to-eat food, coats, warm clothes, blankets and water. They filled the entire vehicle, and even overflowed into one SUV.

By the time the van got to the Operation: Wilton Hearts drop-off spot at the Premier warehouse, dozens of people had gathered there with even more items.  The overabundance of donated supplies was incredible—which allowed the group to react to almost minute-by-minute changes in the needs on the ground in Staten Island. No longer did Staten Island want coats and warm clothing; contacts at the Hilton evacuation center relayed that needs had shifted—building supplies, cleaning supplies, personal care items, cots and mattresses were now on the ‘urgent’ list.

“We keep getting text messages:  ‘We really need rakes!’  ‘We really need garbage bags!’  We’re trying to keep up,” Torie explained to the group.

Quickly she, Michele and Eve organized the volunteers, harnessing their teamwork into an assembly line passing boxes of diapers and flats of bottled water and bags filled with clothes. Even the littlest kids—3 or 4 years old—were lifting and helping, as everyone pitched in to unload, sort, organize, and reload the items requested in Staten Island.

There was an almost incalculable amount of goods the two groups collected to help so many people. “It’s been overwhelming—never underestimate people’s generosity toward others. That’s the lesson learned,” Eve said.

The team decided to hold what remained—including the clothing and other items—for a subsequent shipment to Breezy Point, New York for later in the week. Khedjia and Maurice were quick to say they’d handle however many deliveries were required.

“Khedjia is our fairy godmother,” Michele said.

There were many other people who chipped in from far away. Eve’s friend in Chicago made a contribution. Mark’s college fraternity brothers donated as well. Michele’s friend from grade school—someone she hadn’t seen in over 20 years—came from her home in New Canaan with supplies to contribute to the cause. In addition to the many Wilton families who came to the warehouse with donations and who stayed to help load, there were also people from Stamford, Trumbull, Weston and Norwalk.

“This is all a testament to the power of Facebook and Smartphones. None of us had power or Internet access after the storm; we did all this without land lines! Technology and social media really made this possible and successful,” raved Michele.

That’s one of the amazing things worth noting—everyone involved in putting this enormous effort, was without power. Despite the complication—while minor in comparison to harder hit areas—these Wilton families still put their own difficulties aside to do as much as they could.

What they could do was mighty:  In little more than 36 hours, Operation: Wilton ‘Hearts’ Staten Island received over $1500 in cash contributions, without even counting any funds that were pledged and are still coming in. Add to this the incredible amount of donated tools, personal items and toiletries, cleaning supplies, gloves, water, food, blankets, diapers, clothing and more that both groups collected. 

You gotta believe!

One of the best moments of Sunday happened at Jen Dahl’s house, just as her team finished packing up everything they’d collected. The moment the last item was loaded onto the van, the group broke out into a spontaneous cheer. “You gotta believe!”

“It was something Bernadette kept saying while we were loading the truck—that we could make it all fit,” explained Jen.

“But,” added Bernadette, “it really has bigger meaning, doesn’t it!”

It’s clear that both groups did just that—believed. The Dahl-Hess team and Operation: Wilton Hearts Staten Island believed this effort was something that needed to be done, and that it could be done, and that Wilton would want to make the effort.

What’s also clear is that Wilton spirit, care and heart were the last things squeezed into that overstuffed van before it made its way to Staten Island. Hopefully all of us from Wilton will have helped the people of Staten Island believe that tomorrow will be a brighter day.

If you missed the tiny window of time to donate, you can still help. Operation: Wilton Hearts has been told that gift cards are the most helpful way for people to contribute to the rebuilding effort. This ensures residents can buy what they truly need. The most useful gift cards would be in smaller increments ($25-$50) to be used at Target, Home Depot, Loews, Gas cards (Hess & Exxon), Pathmark, Stop & Shop, and CVS. They can be mailed via certified mail to Nicole K. Girellini, 55 Brookside Loop, Staten Island, NY 10309. She has volunteered to hand out the gift cards directly to the people at their homes and shelters. 

KMP November 05, 2012 at 05:31 PM
Thanks Heather! For those looking to donate, right now most in need are cleanup supplies. As you noted in the article, needs are continually evolving. We're trying to strategize on our next steps (as there was ZERO planning this past weekend, it was totally seat-of-our-pants, which worked beautifully actually) and will let people know what the next steps will be. It's incredible how many people without power or hot water for a week now are still reaching out to us asking how they can help.
Suzze November 05, 2012 at 09:12 PM
Thanks Wilton; I live in Greenwich but my parents live in New Dorp Beach. My husband and I went there on Sunday to bring my parents a generator to work a sump pump and a space heater. First I have to say I was horrified that the community that I grew up in, was destroyed. After the initial shock we got down to business and dis what we can to save what was salvageable. The outpouring of service from groups like yours was amazing. Now, as for what is needed, I agree with Michele, BLEACH is needed. Gloves and masks are essential because the bacteria and mold just keep growing until each home is cleaned. More than anything, these people need GAS to keep their generators running so that sump pumps can continue to pump sewage and sea water out of people's homes. I will upload pictures that I took of a community that really needs help right now. The entire situation is heartbreaking and Bloomberg should be disgraced!
Leslie Yager November 06, 2012 at 12:38 AM
thanks for the Staten Island photos Susan! very telling
Lorna November 06, 2012 at 04:32 PM
More evidence of I why I'm proud to call myself a Wiltonian. I relished the generosity of friends and neighbors who helped me while I "camped out" for six days without power. But I realize whatever hardship I had pales in comparison to thousands in NJ and NY who lost their homes. Kudos to those cited in this article for helping, and all those who donated items. It's gratifying to see that not everyone subscribes to a Gold Coast mentality that "he who dies with the most toys wins."
Ted Riegel November 07, 2012 at 05:05 PM
Some gift cards on the way...


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