Just ten weeks ago, the inside of PS 207’s front hallway was cold, dark and enveloped in an acrid smell. The floors and walls were lined with plastic and workers in hard hats and dirty jeans.
But on Jan. 2, the students came back and the school — badly damaged in Hurricane Sandy — slowly began to return to normal.
But the ghost of Sandy still lingers in the hallways and classrooms of PS 207. Nearly every student lives in a house that suffered flood damage when the storm surge inundated the neighborhood on Oct. 29. Many had to leave their homes. A select few are still not back.
Last week, the survivors of the hurricane at PS 207 took part in a program that has connected disaster victims across the country — and even some far away parts of the world — for over a decade.
It started with a foundation called New York Says Thank You, established by Manhattan resident Jeff Parness after the 9/11 attacks. Parness lost a friend in the World Trade Center and his son decided to donate his toys to victims of wildfires in Southern California in 2003, and that was the beginning of the foundation.
In December 2006, a tornado struck the small town of Groesbeck, Texas. Patrick Samuels, assistant chief of the town’s fire department, saw his family’s home and neighbors’ houses destroyed. Worse yet, the town was not eligible for FEMA money because it was not declared a disaster area. On the sixth anniversary of 9/11, New York Says Thank You came to Groesbeck to help build new homes for the tornado victims.
Deciding to pay it forward, Samuels reached out to the town of Greensburg, Kan., a rural town in the Great Plains wiped off the map by an F5 tornado in 2007. There, Stars of Hope was born when 220 schoolchildren painted wooden stars.
From the plains of Kansas, Stars of Hope has since made its way around the country — and the world — to communities hit hard to natural and man-made disasters including Galveston, Texas after Hurricane Ike in 2008, the tornado-ravaged cities of Joplin, Mo., and Tuscaloosa, Ala. and Minot, ND, which was devastated by a flood in 2010. Samuels even took the project to Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami there. One star that was made in tsunami-struck Japan and another from a war-torn part of Israel now hang on a telephone pole in Howard Beach.
After Hurricane Sandy, Samuels and others brought stars that were painted in Texas, Georgia and Kansas to the Rockaways and posted them around the neighborhood to help brighten the spirits of the storm’s survivors. One star caught the eye of Janine Pizzariella, a kindergarten teacher at PS 207. She looked up the project on its Facebook page and decided to reach out and see if they could come to Howard Beach.
“I really wanted to do it as soon as we came back to the school,” Pizzariella said.
Because of the damage to PS 207, its students attended classes in other schools until Jan. 2. Samuels said they were considering coming to town and having the students paint stars in their host schools, but Pizzariella said she wanted to wait until the children were back in the school building.
“It’s sort of a homecoming for us,” she said.
Despite living in a rural Texas town, Samuels knew of Howard Beach. As part of Stars of Hope and New York Says Thank You, Samuels had met New York City Firefighter Jimmy Sands — a Howard Beach resident — who had taken part in projects in Texas, Kansas and other areas Stars of Hope has traveled to. The two connected with Pizzariella and agreed to bring the project to the school last Friday.
Class by class, students filed into the school’s gymnasium. The younger children had their teachers write out the words they wanted to paint on the stars. Older kids colored their stars in bright shades of green, yellow and blue and added messages of hope. One star paid homage to one of the city’s hardest hit neighborhoods with a brightly colored message reading “Breezy Point Shines.”
Volunteers — including survivors of past natural disasters — carried the wooden stars, cut out in Georgia from wood donated by The Home Depot. Georgia’s postal abbreviation was on the back of the stars, a message of support from that part of the country, Samuels said.
Among the volunteers helping at PS 207 was Matt Deighton, a survivor of the 2007 Greensburg, Kan. tornado. Deighton, whose hearing was damaged by the twister, said he enjoys taking part in the project, which he admitted to be dismissive of when it first came to his town.
“I didn’t understand the impact at first,” he said. “But now I really see the effect.”
Deighton scurried around the gym, filling cups with paint and talking to the children about their stars. He said the most striking thing was when he saw the bulletin board at the main entrance to the school. Posted there are cutouts of ruby red slippers colored by students. “The Wizard of Oz”-themed “No place like home” display, representing the students’ excitement to return to their school, struck the Kansas native.
“Look at that,” he said pointing to the board. “I’m from Kansas!”
Hundreds of stars were painted at the school and Samuels said they will be taken to other areas hit by future disasters.
The next stop for Samuels was Newtown, Conn., the town still reeling from last month’s mass shooting at an elementary school that killed 20 children and sieven adults. He brought up a number of painted stars to put up in the town last weekend. Some of the stars painted at PS 207, including one bearing the name of the school, were taken there.
PS 207 was not the only stop Stars of Hope will be making in New York. The organization hosted a community paint in Breezy Point last week, and Samuels said he is in negotiations to bring the stars to a school in Gerristen Beach, Brooklyn.