It may have been 91 degrees — at 9:30 a.m. no less — but the 40 high school students in blue shirts who spread out across Charles Park worked through the brutal mid-July weather, picking up garbage and flotsam junk from the beach, cleaning the dugouts in the baseball fields and painting the benches in a fresh coat of green.
The breeze off Jamaica Bay provided some relief to the volunteers, who were there as part of the Student Conservation Association — a New Hampshire-based nonprofit that allows high school students to take part in environmental conservation projects.
Using money — a total of $950,000 — from the federal $60 billion Sandy aid package that passed earlier this year, the SCA has acquired about 400 student volunteers to work at Gateway National Recreation Area, which was devastated by Hurricane Sandy last year.
The crews have worked at Sandy Hook in New Jersey and Gateway’s parkland in Staten Island and Brooklyn.
The students, who were joined by several city Parks Department workers, have been working in Charles Park and Hamilton Park across Hawtree Basin in Hamilton Beach for two weeks.
They came in the morning hours when it’s the coolest, starting work around 8:30 a.m. and leaving around 12:30 p.m. They tackled the garbage-covered beach, where during the winter, flotsam — much of it pieces of structures destroyed in Sandy — washed up. For several weeks, that included a 20-foot boat.
They also cleaned the grass and dirt on the baseball diamonds, which sometimes double as a makeshift dog park, and filled in holes left behind by cars and other objects that Sandy’s storm surge pulled from the neighborhood as the water retreated. After the storm, cars, boats and pieces of homes were left scattered throughout the park.
Many of the volunteers are from Queens, but some come from as far away as Long Island and New Jersey to help out.
Treyson Nelson, 14, of Jamaica said he joined SCA after his older sister was unable to do it.
“It’s something I really wanted to get involved in,” he said. “It’s been great so far.”
Armed with a paintbrush and a small can of green paint, Treyson and three other volunteers worked in a shady spot in Charles Park’s playground painting the wooden benches that had faded and chipped while several feet away neighborhood children played in the sprinkler, periodically stopping to see what was going on. At the benches while he worked, Treyson chatted with his fellow volunteers.
“Everybody I’ve met through this program is pretty cool,” he said.
Koryne Cleare, 15, came from Islip, LI to help. Her father is an NYPD officer and found out about the program at work.
“I said I would be more than happy to do it because it’s for a good cause,” she said.
Despite all the work that SCA did, there is still much to do.
One Howard Beach resident, who identified himself only as Michael, stopped and spoke with Laura Herrin, SCA’s director of program innovation, for more than 15 minutes about the park’s various problems, stemming from damaged fences to issues with his neighbors who don’t curb their dogs.
“Not to disrespect anything that’s going on here today,” Michael said. “But this park needs a lot more work.”
He mentioned the park’s lighting and bathrooms, which were completely flooded in the storm, had just recently reopened.
Though the program was put together in the wake of Sandy, he pointed out the park has been a problem well before the storm.
“This dates back years, long before Sandy,” Michael said. “The hurricane, it just made it worse.”
Nevertheless, volunteers like Koryne said they can tell they’re making progress.
“Looking at the before and after is actually one of the most amazing things I’ve done,” she said. “It’s much better than sitting at home sleeping until two o’clock in the afternoon. When I look at the heat and everything I work through, to see what’s done is very fulfilling.”