The sun had yet to rise when a few dozen people from New York’s Irish American community huddled together on 41st Street and Park Avenue in Manhattan before we boarded a yellow school bus to the Rockaways. Over 400 volunteers made the trip last Saturday for Meitheal na Nollaig -- the second Irish Day of Action.
As we approached our destination, the beauty of the chilly winter morning was contrasted by the bleakness of the oceanfront community.
It has been almost two months since Hurricane Sandy struck, and one month since the first Irish contingent came to the Rockaway peninsula.
Since then a few more businesses have reopened, but there were few signs of visible progress on the streets. On a metal railing on one street corner, someone had scrawled the words “LIPA sucks” in thick black graffiti. On another corner, a man wheeled his laundry out of a launderette, suggesting for him some small sense of normality had resumed.
Read More: Hurricane Sandy hit Irish neighborhoods in New York and New Jersey hardest
About 400 volunteers arriving from the Bronx, Queens, and Manhattan disembarked their buses for the second Irish Day of Action on Beach 95th Street and Cross Bay Parkway. Irish Consul General Noel Kilkenny thanked everyone for coming out before we splintered off into different task groups.
My friend and I joined the toy factory group, and once again boarded a yellow school bus bound for a public school a short distance away.
Driving along Shore Front Parkway, mounds of sand piled on the boardwalk still obstructed the ocean view. Beachfront properties remained boarded up. A playground near the edge of the beach, once a haven for the neighborhood children, was covered with piles of sand and trash bags.
When we entered PS 104 in Far Rockaway, I was reminded of the horrors in Newtown, Connecticut. Notice boards with "Pupil of the Month" displayed young smiling faces.
As part of the New York Irish Center’s annual shoebox appeal, hundreds of New Yorkers donated Christmas shoe boxes to Christmas Meitheal.
An assembly line of 30 volunteers emptied two vans worth of Christmas toys for the youngest Sandy victims. Inside the warm school auditorium everyone peeled off their layers of insulation before we began sorting through the toys.
With festive music blaring in the background, volunteers got busy sorting the gifts and assembling the cardboard boxes. It was great to see so many kind messages from children tucked inside the Christmas boxes for Sandy victims.
“If I am getting gifts at Christmas, so should you,” one child wrote.
In addition to the donated pre-packaged boxes, volunteers also packed hundreds of boxes with toys and gifts. There were dolls, teddy bears, games, coloring books, jigsaw puzzles, clothes and chocolate.
It was truly amazing to witness a group of strangers aged from 7 to 77 working together in a makeshift toy factory. Our only connection was our Irish heritage.
When we walked into PS 104 in Far Rockaway on Saturday morning, most of us were strangers.
Before long we were all chatting, sharing how we heard about the volunteer drive and cracking jokes together.
Rockaways local Marina Callaghan and assistant school principal Deirdre McShane shared their Sandy experiences while we worked. Everyone got involved as a member of the female security staff at the school rolled up her sleeves and began wrapping boxes.
Around lunchtime, Dublin native Paul Hurley, owner of P.D. O'Hurley's restaurant in Manhattan, delivered a vat of delicious potato and leek soup for the volunteers.
By early afternoon, we assembled, checked, and wrapped 700 Christmas boxes for children affected by Sandy. All the boxes were separated into different age groups and piled high in one of the classrooms.
“Every person who has come into the room since is in awe,” says McShane, whose father is from Raphoe in Co. Donegal.
“All of us are so grateful,” she added.
The school, which has 650 pupils enrolled, intends to hand out the gifts to students this week.
McShane told the Irish Voice that many students were affected by the storm. Some of them have been relocated to different homes. As a result, attendance in the school is down to around 575.
“I know there was one student whose family swam out of their home with the cats and dogs during the storm,” McShane said.
As well as PS 104 students, over 30 percent of the school’s staff were affected by the storm. McShane’s family home in Freeport, Long Island was also destroyed by Sandy. McShane, her husband and their one-year-old son, Liam, have been staying with family since late October.
"Two months on, my insurance has not given us any figures about the cost of the damage done," she said.
With countless people still suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, McShane says it was inspiring to see many Irish people come out to help last Saturday.
“Everyone was so pleasant and happy,” McShane said.
“I am still in awe. When you see the goodness in people, it’s amazing.”