Kids displaced by Sandy helped by LI school districts
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Mackenzie Boyle has one wish. "I just want my own room," said the 15-year-old. "That's all I want."
The 10th-grader at Walter G. O'Connell Copiague High School has been jammed into a rented house with her four family members since weeks after superstorm Sandy. Sharing a bedroom with her parents, their dressers shoved into the living room, Mackenzie is trying to stay positive. "It's rough, but it happens," she said. "We just have to deal with it because that's life."
More than 300 students on Long Island remain displaced due to Sandy, and school districts continue to try to meet their needs.
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Kids are resilient, school staff said, but the emotional and financial trauma suffered by their families can take a toll. Districts hit hard by Sandy remain vigilant in tracking and helping those who are not yet back in their homes get everything from clothing to counseling.
The number of displaced students a year after the storm is a fraction of the roughly more than 4,000 students who were out of their homes immediately after Sandy. But the numbers don't tell the whole story, said school officials. They suspect more students are displaced, but are being driven to school by their parents and aren't in school tallies. Some of those considered displaced are back in their homes, but living in "inadequate" conditions, such as not having a kitchen. Others are living in one-bedroom apartments with five or more family members.
Some administrators said they did not expect the number of displaced to continue to be so high. "It was surprising to learn that some families may not be back in their homes for another school year," said Massapequa schools' Robert Schilling.
Since the storm, some families have been too proud, shy or embarrassed to ask for help, said Elizabeth Biscotti, a social worker at Freeport's Archer Street Elementary. At the same time, charities that families may have once relied upon may not be getting as many donations now, she said, which is why it's important for staff to continually "extend the olive branch" to those they suspect are still struggling.
"A school district is so crucial to families," she said. "Because at least with us here, I know that our students will be taken care of."
Mackenzie's mother, Cathy, 51, who works as a cafeteria aide for the district, said school staff regularly called to check in on the family, send supplies home with the students or leave donations on their doorstep.
Getting some helpKim Greengus, 43, of Long Beach, who has four sons, said the district has "been really, really great" at directing her displaced family toward outside help.
All of the districts provide transportation for the students, at a cost of between $4,000 and $20,000 per month. Some districts, such as Copiague, also provide transportation for after-school activities and sports.
"Because that's what's normal," said Alison Stritzl, social worker at Copiague High School. "Being at school is what's normal, being able to be with friends, do sports, do activities. The more we can connect kids to what's normal, that's better for them."
The bus rides were needed for Greengus' four boys, ages 6 to 11. After living in a hotel for months, the family found a home in Albertson. But the commute -- the boys would board the bus at 6:30 a.m. and not return home until 5 p.m. -- took a toll on her children.
"By the time they got home, the last thing they wanted to do was even look at a book," she said. "As much as I tried to sit down with them to do some sort of work, it just wasn't happening. They were having meltdowns. They hated school and hated what happened to them."
Greengus said her sons' grades slipped, but teachers were understanding and she was adamant that her children remain in the school district.
"Their friends were the only thing they could still hold on to," she said. "And their friends went through exactly the same thing they went through. And so did their teachers."
In some districts, much of the staff was also displaced, with many still rebuilding. "There were a couple of moments when I thought, 'How am I going to deal with this? I'm displaced, I'm dealing with my own issues,' " Biscotti said. "But my main concern was these kids. I'm an adult, I can process and comprehend . . . [that] life will move on."
Trauma manifestingSchool staff said many children were traumatized by the storm and get anxious when bad weather is predicted. Even moving back into their homes can cause old feelings of dread to re-emerge, Biscotti said.
Some students have displayed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, which often doesn't manifest until six months to a year after an event, said Jacqueline Agresta, social worker at Long Beach's East Elementary School and the district's homeless liaison.
In anticipation of the anniversary and bombardment of media images of the storm this week, she said, the district has educated the staff on signs of the condition. "This is the time it could manifest itself," she said. "If you're sitting in front of the TV all day long and seeing these images, it could bring it up again."
But while some students may be aware of the storm's anniversary, most are focused on something else this week: Halloween, which was all but forgotten last year.
"In their world, they don't keep track of dates," Agresta said. "They're just so psyched to go trick or treating."But there are signs of improvement. Island Park Superintendent Rosmarie Bovino said that since September, 35 of their 136 displaced students have moved back into their rebuilt homes.
Greengus, her husband, Todd, 50, and her boys are now renting a home in Long Beach but still struggling through red tape to rebuild. Even though the house has four bedrooms, all of the boys sleep together in one room. "After the storm, they're afraid to be alone," she said.
They keep asking when they're going home. Son James, 6, thinks whenever it rains that it will be a hurricane and they will have to leave Long Beach.
Cathy Boyle and her husband, Hughy, 52, whose rebuilding efforts were delayed when a contractor walked off with $11,000, have promised Mackenzie and her two older brothers, Hughie and Corey, that the family will be home for Christmas, but admit February is more likely.
With their rental home only 10 blocks away, Mackenzie every day asks to drive past their house. "I just want to see it," she said. "Even if nothing new has been done, I want to see it."