Hurricane Sandy is long gone. But, for those in her path who lost everything, the storm is still very real and continues to impact their lives today.
“Half an hour is all the time it took between us finding the water in the boiler room and making it out of the house in waist high water,” said Nadia Reyes, a Brooklyn native. “We lost everything that was in the house. My son’s toy chest was literally floating.”
Reyes is one of thousands of citizens in the tri-state area whose homes and belongings were lost to Hurricane Sandy Oct. 29.
It’s nearly impossible to predict the damage any natural disaster can have on a community. Beyond the physical damage, there is an emotional burden as well. Many families are still homeless and faced with the possibility of heading into the holiday season without shelter and clothing for themselves or gifts for their children.
“You can easily go to a dark place and think that it’s not going to get better, but when people reach out to you and offer assistance, it makes you feel like there is hope,” Reyes said.
It’s this hope that drives the Marines of 6th Communication Battalion to support the Toys for Tots Foundation, year in and year out. The Brooklyn Toys for Tots drive is one of the largest distribution points in the country.
“We were number one in the nation last year, collecting and distributing over 150,000 toys,” said Sgt. Shawn Levesque, the Toys for Tots coordinator for 6th Comm Bn. “Our annual goals are always to increase on last year’s numbers. We won’t know for sure until the end of the season, but we are on pace to pass those numbers again.”
The end goal became more challenging this year when the storm ravaged homes and families in New York. Like Reyes, many in the area have needed to lean on the support of family and friends, relocating the last of their belongings and depending on others to provide any type of assistance they can spare. This has made this year’s toy collection more important but also more challenging for the Marines.
“The effects of the storm motivates us to do even better than we have in the previous years,” said Lance Cpl. Daryl Bleecher, a volunteer Toys for Tots coordinator with the battalion. “People are going through even harder times, so it’s a bigger push to get more and to do more. We know it will help people who are facing more difficult situations now. It will give them hope and help them out.”
The Marines began collecting toys for the New York area Oct. 1. The storm and power outages had an exponential impact on this year’s mission, as the Marines lost many of their initial toys collected to water damage when their warehouse flooded. Their perseverance and the foundation’s dedication to provide aid will help them continue to provide aid to those in need.
“With Sandy hitting, the unit lost about 1,000 toys, which put us a little behind our normal goals for the year,” said Sgt. Matthew A. Elder, a Toys for Tots coordinator with the battalion. “And following the storm, we immediately went out in the community and to the shelters to give out toys we had collected to the kids. We knew that if we could provide children with a gift and put a smile on their face during the holiday times, it would give them a little piece of hope.”
To assist with the increased demand and additional supplies needed for this year’s toy drives, the Toys for Tots Foundation partnered with the Blue Angels to deliver donations to communities hit by the storm. Marines with the Blue Angels collected toys and donations from Atlanta and D.C. and transported them in the all Marine-crewed C-130 “Fat Albert” aircraft to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst just south of Trenton, N.J. There, the toys were dispensed among the distribution centers to provide additional aid to those who were affected by the storm.
“For 65 years, Marines have delivered hope to children through the gift of a new toy during the Christmas holidays,” said retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Pete Osman, president and chief executive officer of Marine Toys for Tots Foundation. “The widespread destruction from Hurricane Sandy has left entire communities in need. We want to help these children heal and see a pathway to a brighter future. We want them to know that they will not be forgotten this season.”
This was the third year, Toys for Tots and the Blue Angels partnered to deliver donations to communities hit by natural disasters. More than $700,000 in toy and book donations were collected and distributed. For the Marines in Brooklyn, it means an additional $140,000 in toys that can be delivered this year.
“We are recovering very well from the storm,” Elder said. “There is an increased demand but there’s also an increase in support coming out of the community. The Blue Angels delivery is a good impact for us and helps us out a lot, filling the void that we had. It was great that they contacted us and asked us what our needs were.”
For the victims, who often times don’t realize where their assistance is coming from, every little bit helps.
“I’m very grateful for everybody who helps me out in a time of need,” Reyes said. “Even the smallest thing will make my son happy and any parent who can’t give to their kids enjoys seeing them smile.”
Individuals wishing to contribute to Toys for Tots Sandy relief efforts can donate online at www.toysfortots.org.