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March 6, 2013

Volunteers spend spring break helping Superstorm Sandy victims

By Richard Whitby
The Daily Star

---- — Scores of students from SUNY Delhi are spending their semester break this week not on boozy tropical beaches, but in wrecked houses and moldy basements much closer to home.

In the past six months, the college has sent “about 100, maybe a bit more than 100” students and faculty to the downstate region and New Jersey to help residents rebuild in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, said Elizabeth Sova, coordinator for the O’Connor Center for Community Engagement, which is the campus’ clearinghouse for volunteer efforts.

Students and faculty are helping with dune restoration in Monmouth County, N.J., mold abatement in Brooklyn and rebuilding in Breezy Point, Queens, which was devastated first by the storm and then by a fire that destroyed about 125 houses because the storm damage blocked firefighters from reaching the isolated enclave.

The Breezy Point students and faculty come from the college’s Building Technologies program.

“Everything we’ve learned in school, we’re putting into practice,” said James Erwin, a fourth-year student from Downsville who is graduating in May.

“The people are great,” he said by phone Tuesday from the Queens enclave. “They’re wonderful and so happy for us to be down here. It just makes you feel good to help out somebody in need.”

The group is led by Peter Campbell, an instructor in refrigeration and air conditioning, but also an experienced manager and an adviser for the Delhi College Interfaith Council.

“These kids aren’t making a nickel on this,” he said by phone from the Queens neighborhood. “They’re gaining a lot of experience. We’ve gotta give it back. They’re donating their time while their friends are going somewhere else where it’s warm, and the sun is shining.”

“Right at the moment at Breezy Point, we’ve got about a dozen students,” he added. He said about 20 students will have spent at least a day at the site before the week is out.

Besides Breezy Point, students are also working working to remove mold from houses in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Gerritsen Beach, which was inundated by 4 feet of water during Sandy.

“I met one of the people in Brooklyn that was getting the mold removed, and she said she said that she wanted to invite us all back there in the summer for a barbecue when her house is all fixed,” Sova said.

She also said that residents of the hard-hit areas have been generous in allowing the students to stay in their homes. At one home, there was no hot water, Sova said, and the owners told the Delhi contingent they had been trying to get it fixed.

So, electrical instructor David Krzyton went to Dubben Brothers in Delhi, which then donated a water heater, she said.

“It’s just a really great group effort,” she said.

The school’s commitment to community service hasn’t gone unnoticed. For the seventh consecutive year, it has been named to the national President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll. SUNY Cobleskill also was among the 34 colleges in New York state to receive such recognition this year.

The focal point for Delhi’s volunteerism is the O’Connor Center, which was established in 1999, Sova said. It is named for the O’Connor Foundation, which is its largest benefactor.

“The timing of this honor is particularly appropriate,” she said. “Over 40 students, faculty and staff are currently assisting our fellow New Yorkers … who are recovering from Hurricane Sandy,” Sova said. “There is a strong community service tradition at Delhi, and we’re very pleased to be recognized leader in community service.”

For the people doing the work, though, the rewards surpass the awards.

Campbell talked about “Mr. O’Brien,” a 90-year-old who had been forced from his Breezy Point home.

“All he wants to do is come home,” Campbell said. “His house is pretty small and pretty ramshackle, and it really should be torn down, but we’re trying to hold it together enough so he can enjoy his last few years here.”