Toys take a trip from Saw Mill Road to Fort Myers, Fla.

How students ran a drive to benefit Hurricane Ian relief


Students in the North Bellmore School District have long been giving back to fellow kids in need.

For many years, the district has partnered with the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, a charitable organization created by the family of Stephen Siller. Siller was a New York City firefighter who died in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, after running through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to get to Lower Manhattan.

Since its founding, Tunnel to Towers has helped people in many ways. One thing the organization regularly does is benefit families and children who are living in areas that are recovering from natural disasters.

Partnering with North Bellmore’s schools to collect toys, Tunnel to Towers brings the donations directly to areas of the United States that are recovering from storms. Last week, a dozen representatives of the organization stopped by Saw Mill Road Elementary School to meet with its sixth-graders and collect hundreds of donations for children in or near Fort Myers, Florida, which is recovering from Hurricane Ian.

Saw Mill Road’s SADD Club — Students Against Destructive Decisions  — organized the drive this year, as they have in the past. Though it took place at Saw Mill Road, previous collections have taken place at the district’s other elementary schools, in North Bellmore and North Merrick. The SADD Club of each school is the group that hosts the drive.

Jo Ann Signorelli, a district social worker, said that the schools were first connected to Tunnel to Towers through a former principal in the district, Faith Skelos. “She came to me and shared what they were doing, and we started it as a SADD Club initiative,” Signorelli told the Herald last week. “We’ve been doing this for 17 years — that’s my gift for everything they’ve done, to make sure that we can continue this legacy.”

Thomas O’Connor, a retired New York City Fire Department lieutenant who’s on the Tunnel to Towers board, said that Frank Siller, Stephen Siller’s father, created the organization with the goal of helping people in small ways. But after Louisiana was decimated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the organization decided to step up the reach of its aid.

“Hurricane relief is a small part of what we do,” O’Connor said. “In ’05, Frank Siller saw the damage along the coast — he contacted me and through a bunch of channels, we started running supplies down. It morphed into a toy distribution for the children, because not only did these kids not have a tree to put a present under, they didn’t have a house to put a tree in.”

For years after Katrina, Tunnel to Towers continued to provide relief to Louisiana, and it didn’t end there. When Texas was hit by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the organization was there to help. When a massive tornado ripped through areas of Kentucky last year, again, it stepped up to the plate.

And now, as Florida recovers from Ian, Tunnel to Towers is making sure those families — and children — can celebrate the holidays.

“The devastation that I saw when I was down in Fort Myers is as bad as anything I’ve ever seen,” O’Connor said. “It looks like they actually sent a bombing mission in to strip the beach — it’s gone.

“This is just our way of trying to live up to the motto of our foundation,” he added. “Let us do good.”

The representatives of Tunnel to Towers visited Saw Mill Road on Dec. 6. By the end of last week, the trucks that came to the school to collect the donations arrived in Florida to distribute over 400 toys.

“It’s a great lesson for the students, and I love that they actually come here and talk with the kids,” Signorelli said. “They get to pack up the toys, put them on the truck, and they see that this truck is going to Florida — like it’s really happening. And I think that’s really important.”

Keara McNamara, a school counselor at Saw Mill Road, said the toy drive embodies SADD’s mission. “It’s a really great thing, because SADD is Students Against Destructive Decisions,” she said. “The best way to combat destructive decisions is by making good choices.”

Clare Malloy, 11, is a sixth-grader who is a member of SADD. “This is the first year back for the SADD Club since Covid hit,” Clare said. “This is our biggest project we’ve worked on yet.”

Clare and her friends Elizabeth O’Toole and Cadance Greene, both 11, said they felt like they learned a lot from taking part in the project.

To let their schoolmates know about the drive, they hung posters around the school and made announcements.

“We did posters to let everyone know that we were doing a big thing for everyone in Florida,” Elizabeth added. “Doing the toy drive just means so much to me, because I feel good when I help others, and they’re going to feel good too.”