A fresh start for Rockaway’s Community and Family Head Start program is underway. They received a clean bill of health from the Department of Health to open the second floor to the children after Hurricane Sandy had shut them down. ”We opened our doors to the special needs children first on Wednesday, December 5,” said Cynthia Cummings, Executive Director. Then, the rest of the children will be phased in by the end of the week. We are all so excited. We missed each other and worked hard for this day to come,” Cummings said.
It has been a rough month. Halloween pumpkin decorations are still on the walls as a reminder of when the storm hit. Like most of Rockaway, Hurricane Sandy flooded out the Head Start Program at 41-05 Beach Channel Drive serving 111 children. Everything on the first floor was under four feet of water. Heating, electrical system, wall boards, a commercial kitchen, two classrooms and office furniture, computers, two copy machines and supplies have to be replaced.
Right now, however, the school’s outdoor area and first floor is a pop-up Disaster Relief Center for the local residents. The area had been cleaned up for that purpose. The classrooms and former parent room hold racks with donated clothing and desks are weighted down with donated goods and occasional hot food delivery. The entryway can now serve as a reception and passage to the upper floors. There was a lot activity during a recent visit as workers busily got the school ready for the young students’ return.
“You can’t move from a disaster of this magnitude to a turnkey operation. It takes several stages: disaster, relief and recovery,” Cummings said.
“Each step is complicated. This flood disaster was and is still very traumatic. Everyone is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. We are all too busy to deal with personal traumas. We know that the children need counseling too, as do most of the entire residents of this area.
“People assumed that if we have light and some heaters, that we could open the school. No, it does not happen like that. We must do it in a way that makes sense.
“When they told me that we couldn’t pay for the electrical panels, I said, well, I’m paying for it. We used $16,000 from emergency funds to do it. This is a business. That was a business decision. If we did not move quickly, things would be worse. Salt water in electrical panels, within a week, we would be worse off. Then we ran out of gas for the generators during the clean-up. Things happen.
“We have to keep moving forward. We will probably need $1.5 million for our third floor, where we hope to move up to. Then, we will be able to serve infants and toddlers on the first floor. That has always been our goal.
“People have been so kind to us. Actually, managing all the volunteers and donations has been a challenge. But my staff is extraordinary. Everyone pitches in wherever needed. So many kind-hearted people have stepped up to help. Many of them are just ordinary people. Even people we terminated are returning to help!”
Framed by rows of brand new homes, the Head Start program had undergone a total renovation in recent years. Their building sits like a jewel in the area. When asked if she feared looters, she scoffed. ”Are you kidding? No way, if anything, the thugs would protect us, because they know we are here for them.”
“A Long Island East End group has been bringing hot meals everyday for area residents. We can’t cook yet. Our kitchen needs to be totally overhauled. We need microwaves and probably caterers to feed the children. That’s in the works now.
“People in Rockaway are still living in the worse conditions that you can imagine, Cummings explained.
“Doubling up in already stressed, crowded conditions. Most families are living with molded furniture with others in overcrowded apartments. People have to wait for contractors to be assigned to fix and repair their apartments. That’s what it’s like being disadvantaged and living in public housing, always waiting.
“Our teachers have made home visits throughout this crisis. Some of the parents prefer to meet at the school since their home conditions are difficult. The children are begging to return to school where life is stable, safe, there’s love, food and cleanliness.”
An area of the room where the disaster relief center was set up next to the clothing racks, a toddler was restless and the mother sat in quiet thought. Sometimes families need to be here rather than home, Cummings explained.
When asked what is needed, Cummings said that she defers to the people themselves. “In the beginning, they needed clothing. Now, they need inflatable beds, towels, toiletries, diapers, space heaters, and detergent to wash clothing. They still need a hot meal everyday.” On a recent visit, residents were treated to hot soup and sandwiches for lunch provided by a local husband and wife team.
Head Start programs are premiere providers of developmental and educational services to infants, toddlers, preschoolers and their families who live within poverty and struggle to meet basic needs of life. Local programs, like Rockaway’s Community and Family Head Start program, are vital because they are rooted in the community and reflect the cultural and social fabric, in every state across the US, the US territories like Puerto Rico and US Virgin Islands and on Native American reservations.