Helping hands

Mandalay Elementary community rallies around Harvey victims

At a news conference at the Freeport Fire Department Headquarters on Aug. 30, Nassau County Legislator Steve Rhoads kicked off a supply drive to aid the victims of Hurricane Harvey.
At a news conference at the Freeport Fire Department Headquarters on Aug. 30, Nassau County Legislator Steve Rhoads kicked off a supply drive to aid the victims of Hurricane Harvey.
Brian Stieglitz/Herald

Cheryl Schwartz, a Wantagh resident who has been a teacher at Mandalay Elementary School for 23 years, said that students in her first-grade class were only babies when Hurricane Sandy devastated the shorefront section of the community in October 2012. But she said she would never forget bringing coats to her neighbors, learning that students did homework under the lights of hotel bathrooms so their siblings could sleep, and hearing about the ways that Wantagh came together in the storm’s aftermath. 

After Hurricane Harvey touched down in southeast Texas in late August, Schwartz was horrified, she said, by the images of nursing home residents sitting in waste-deep water that she saw on television. She knew she wanted to help them — and she thought it was important for her students to learn about what was happening in the Houston area. 

“Some of the children didn’t know what a hurricane was because they don’t remember it, but others remember being displaced from their homes for years,” Schwartz said. “It’s important for all children to develop empathy. They have to be able to say, ‘Well, what can we do to make sure you know that you are not alone?’” 

During the first week of classes, the Mandalay community collected boxes of supplies for Hurricane Harvey victims. Boxes of donations were given to a supply drive, hosted by Nassau County Legislator Steve Rhoads, which ran through Sept. 8. 

Merrick residents Patrick Rogers and Ron Luparello, also ex-chief of the Merrick Fire Department, proposed hosting the drive in their community. When they brought the idea to Rhoads, a Republican from Bellmore and a member of the Wantagh Fire Department, it grew into a countywide effort. 

“The images we’ve seen coming out of Texas over the past five days are images with which we are all too familiar,” Rhoads said, referring to the aftermath of Sandy.  

He told residents of his district — which includes parts of Wantagh, Seaford, Bellmore, Merrick and Freeport — that organizers were collecting children’s and adult diapers, baby food and formula, sealed packages of underwear and socks, new blankets, cleaning supplies, gloves, utility knives, brooms, shovels, batteries, flashlights and first aid kits. When Schwartz heard about the drive, she emailed Mandalay PTA Co-presidents Sharon George and Irene Hudson, asking them to help her mobilize the community. 

Schwartz noted that some students at Mandalay, in south Wantagh, are still displaced from their homes because of Sandy. Principal Marie Pisicchio said that one student in the school, which takes in about 260 children, has lived in a trailer behind his house for months because the home is being elevated. 

“The unique thing about Mandalay is that because it is such a small building, we have become like a close-knit family,” Pisicchio said. “The children feel a sense of community and want to help others.” 

Schwartz noted that Mandalay families gathered on Labor Day to discuss ways to publicize the drive. Pisicchio commended PTA leaders, who brought the supplies to King Kullen, where Rhoads was collecting donations. 

Pisicchio said that community service is done constantly at Mandalay. Schwartz, who used to be the faculty adviser for the school’s student council, said that students and teachers have hosted countless food drives, made cards for veterans and held fundraisers for the John Theissen Children’s Foundation. 

Superintendent John McNamara said that he was proud of the Mandalay staff, students and parents who sponsored Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. The district will hold more fundraisers and drives for those afflicted by Harvey and Hurricane Irma, which battered parts of Florida earlier this month. 

“Our community’s generosity when others are in need is truly impressive,” McNamara said. “Our hearts go out to the residents of Texas and Florida.”

Brian Stieglitz contributed to this story.