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Helping hands: Long Islanders take altruism to St. Maarten, Haiti, Ghana

Paula Pecorella holds a world map, on which

Paula Pecorella holds a world map, on which she's marked all the different countries she has visited, at her home in West Islip in March. Photo Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Most people travel for the delight of experiencing new places, but three Long Island residents seized opportunities to help a impoverished school in Ghana and ease the suffering of hundreds beleaguered by disasters on two Caribbean islands. Here are their stories.

Transformed by travels

Paula Pecorella of West Islip is 23 and has visited as many countries worldwide. She wanted to see the sights, experience the cultures and meet people. A visit to a school in Ghana three years ago gave her another reason: The opportunity to form global networks of people helping people.

On her trip to Ghana, Pecorella felt moved to help Fred Benneh, 27, founder of the Semanhyiya-American primary school in Senase, a rural village in the Brong-Ahafo region. Benneh explained he was having difficulty keeping teachers, but if he could sponsor their college education they would be committed to the school.

The cost for four years of college, Pecorella says Benneh told her, would be $500 a year. He wanted to send four teachers, she says. “I said, ‘Fred, I will get you the money.’ ”

“Right after that I went to Thailand,” she explains. There she saw elephant pants selling for $3 each. Pecorella decided to buy “a couple hundred” to sell in the United States. “They’re super nice for the summer,” she says.

An entrepreneur in the making, in 2016, Pecorella established Threads for Education, a clothing company. She and a partner set up tables at craft fairs all over Long Island to sell the pants. “By the end of 2017 I had enough money to send four teachers to college,” she says.

Pecorella did not stop at selling elephant pants to help Benneh’s school. In July 2017, she recruited 12 teachers from Long Island high schools to train teachers at the school during a 10-day trip. Through her efforts, Wi-Fi was provided for 60 computers at the school, and a group of employees from Salesforce — a worldwide employment management company — built a playground and a waste management system there.

“All those people were so motivated to give back. For a lot of them it was their first time leaving the country,” Pecorella says.

Threads for Education was sold, but it inspired what she calls the “global perspective” for travels that enables her to collaborate with people worldwide for mutual benefit.

“Travel taught me there was a bigger world out there than just Long Island and the way we live,” Pecorella says. She notes that in Bali she met “the woman I will work for” in a job she began earlier this month as an executive project manager in Nashville.

“I used to just travel to visit people,” Pecorella says. “After that, a lot of my travels were wrapped around work … I wanted to travel for a purpose rather than just be a tourist.”

Pecorella has traveled to Asia, Africa, Europe and North America while attending Suffolk County Community College and pursuing a major in politics and a minor in journalism at Stony Brook University.

She visited some places through Semester at Sea, a study abroad program in which undergraduates earn college credits while aboard a cruise ship visiting exotic locations.

The third of four girls, Pecorella says her parents “helped me pay for college so I was able to fund my travels” and some of her journeys were facilitated through organizations involved in travel that she worked for.

She is travel coordinator for the GodFreds Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in California for which she organizes tours. A business she started in 2018 plans adventure retreats to Machu Picchu, Peru, and Egypt.

Barbara Allison, based in California and one of the founders of GodFreds, says Pecorella has been “a big asset to the foundation” as its travel coordinator, organizing student volunteers at its school in Ghana, helping with such projects as community drainage and showing teachers how to use materials in the classroom.

“Travel inspires new ideas just by being in a different place every day,” Pecorella says. “I think when you keep service and purpose at the forefront of the work you do, you create a ripple effect, and it inspires people to give back in any way they know how to do.”

Helping the place they love

They met in the spring 2011 while studying at the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine in St. Maarten. He would eventually become a psychiatrist, she an internist.

They loved the school, each other and the French/Dutch island set in the blue-green waters of the Caribbean.

Taking their annual vacation meant returning to the island for Andrew Pleener, 33, of Woodbury, and his wife, Olga Aleksandrova, 35, who immigrated to the United States from Russia in 2001. It was their special place.

“Its gorgeous palm trees, very wealthy visitors, regattas, nice restaurants,” Pleener says. “We fell in love with the whole thing.”

In early September 2017, three days after they arrived for their annual trip, Hurricane Irma hit with 180 mph winds and gusts of 225 mph. They were unprepared for the devastation it wreaked but sprang into action, becoming unexpected heroes.

Two of only four doctors in the area at the time, the couple helped set up a makeshift clinic at their alma mater, on the island’s Dutch side. They staffed it with students, some who had been nurses or emergency medical technicians.

The makeshift disaster clinic was the only source of medical care for tourists, residents, even university students on that part of the island. Two local hospitals were destroyed, prompting the government to refer people to the clinic.

Planning their vacation that year Pleener and his wife — now parents of two young children, one named Marten — had looked forward to their customary laid-back stay.

“We went to the beach and everything was calm,” Pleener recalls. “The weather was gorgeous.”

Reports of the developing storm indicated it might miss the island altogether, Pleener says. Nevertheless, they “stocked up just in case: batteries, candles, bottled water, flashlights,” he says. Then the storm was upgraded to Category 3 and confirmed to be heading their way.

The couple were staying at a friend’s condo, which had hurricane glass and shutters and a backup generator.

They became concerned, however, when the hurricane was further upgraded to a Category 4. Pleener remembered Luis, a Category 4 hurricane that wrecked the island in September 1995.

“People started to book flights out of St. Maarten,” Pleener says. “My wife started getting nervous. ‘We have to get a flight to go home,’ [she said].

“I said, ‘Olga, we’re staying; we’re not going to be able to get off this island.’ … People were paying $20,000 for a private jet.”

Once stranded, Pleener says, they set out to gather more supplies and ran into the university’s dean of academic affairs, Yoshida Hiroko. The dean urged them to relocate to a new university building, built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, that was being opened as a shelter.

Pleener also encountered Dr. David Adelstein, an obstetrics and gynecology specialist on his second day at work after retiring to the island from a private practice in Boston. Together the doctors pulled together 20 volunteers.

“Anyone who was a nurse volunteered to be a nurse; anyone who was an emergency medical technician volunteered to be an emergency medical technician. None had previous disaster training,” Pleener says.

In the makeshift clinic, his wife ran an intensive-care unit, and he the psychiatric trauma center. The school had first-aid supplies, and the team solicited medication from the local pharmacy. A nurse practitioner made casts and slings for the injured. A plastic surgeon visiting his daughter (a new medical student) helped with sutures and stitching lacerations from broken glass.

Aleksandrova also organized a cafeteria with whatever water and food they could lay their hands on, Pleener says, some from restaurant owners fearing they’d be looted otherwise.

The doctors also worked to calm the many who were traumatized by the loss of homes, family members and pets, who were in shock or otherwise in distress. “We didn’t sleep at all,” Pleener says.

A search-and-rescue unit was formed that operated during the eye of the storm “when the wind calmed down,” Aleksandrova says. People were brought to the clinic from the French side.

Adelstein says that he and his wife, Carin, a pharmacist, had tickets to leave but decided to stay because students and their families "could not get off." Apart from the value of treating the injured, says Adelstein, "We were able to come together in a time of crisis.”

Visiting their condo after the storm, Pleener and his wife found windows exploded and the balcony, refrigerator and kitchen cabinets blown out. “We would have been in bad shape if we stayed there,” he says. After 10 days they were evacuated by the U.S. military.

“We really love that island,” Pleener says, “and it broke our hearts to see the people having a difficult time. It really was important for us to see what we could do. As a physician you are supposed to put others before yourself.”

Pleener and Aleksandrova received many gestures of appreciation for their part in creating and managing the-little-clinic-that-could where hundreds of Irma victims were treated.

To honor their work, last year the university’s medical school invited them to give the keynote at the Class of 2022’s White Coat Ceremony, for incoming medical students. The pair are also giving remote lectures about disaster response. As further recognition, he says, Richmond University Medical Center in Staten Island, where Pleener will complete his residency in July, has asked the couple to address physicians about their disaster experience. And, he says, his alma mater and Harvard University Medical School have signed an agreement to offer a Disaster Medicine Fellowship on the island.

The couple have plans of their own: to set up a multi-specialty practice in Orlando, Florida.

Looking back, Aleksandrova says, “We were lucky we survived. We’re trained to respond to emergencies, but we’re not trained to be in a Category 5 hurricane.”

Long Islanders on a mission

When her church announced a mission to Haiti, Melissa Borger of Wantagh was among 18 who said yes.

That trip in February 2014 spurred Borger to return many times, organizing teams to take food, clothing and other necessities to people struggling to recover from the hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, droughts and other catastrophes that have assailed Haiti over the years.

“We had to pay for the trip — about $2,000 for travel, accommodations, food and other essentials — but we volunteered,” says Borger, 50.

CenterPoint Church, a nondenominational church in Massapequa where Borger is a member, had arranged for the volunteers to work with children at a school in Meyotte, a community outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. They were also to help rebuild a home destroyed in the 2010 earthquake. Her group partnered with the Haitian organization Cooperation of Evangelical Theologians for the Integral Development of Humans.

During the week Borger’s team spent in Meyotte, it hosted a food program for the children from 2 to 17 years old at the school. “We also distributed food bags they could take home to their families,” Borger adds.

To reach more people, “we walked through the mountains and went into people’s homes,” she says. They carried duffel bags “filled with various donations we obtained from people on Long Island.”

Many people they visited “had no income, no food; none of the basic necessities they needed,” she says. “They were living in shacks, tents. We visited 100 homes, and some people came to the area where we were working.”

The home they helped to rebuild housed seven members of a family — two of the children cousins whose parents had died in the earthquake — who were all living in the bedroom.

“That was the only part of the house that was left,” says Borger, a marketing representative for Northwell Health, based in New Hyde Park. “They didn’t have a kitchen or a bathroom, and the roof was leaking.”

“After that first visit I became aware of how it touched my life, and I started becoming more active in it,” Borger says. She recruited and trained nine teams of from 15 to 24 people from her church and among family, friends and “people in my community who would approach me because they knew what I had done. A lot of people, once they go, they keep coming with me.”

“We primarily serve Meyotte, but after Hurricane Matthew that affected the south of Haiti, I took a team to Les Cayes on the coast,” Borger says. In five years, she says, they have served close to 200 people.

Borger has been joined on several missions by family members, including her husband, Joseph, who owns a general contracting company in Carle Place; their son, Christopher, 23, who is in musical theater; and their daughter, Alexi, 16, an 11th-grader at St. Anthony’s High School in Huntington.

Alexi asked Borger to organize a trip in August 2018 so her high school friends could share the experience. “She was so affected by everything there,” Borger says. “When you grow up on Long Island and have an opportunity to serve in a place like that, you see how blessed you are living here. We go on vacation to the Caribbean, but you don’t know how people really live.”

A trip planned for February was canceled because of unrest in the country, Borger says, but a trip is planned for August. Sixteen people have already signed up.

“People go there because they have a desire in their heart to serve other people,” Borger says, “and the people of Haiti bless us with their appreciation.”

To expand services, Borger became director of Blanca’s House in Haiti, an offshoot of the nonprofit based in Huntington Station that brings free health care to underprivileged communities in South and Central America.

Robin Feld, co-executive director of operations at Blanca's House, calls Borger and her group “amazing.”

“Without people like her and her group, they wouldn't have the help,” Feld says. "She's just incredible."

Borger also established a sponsorship program providing 45 children in Haiti with monthly support from U.S. sponsors.

“I keep trying to grow and serve as many people as possible,” Borger says. “We teach skills so they can sustain themselves. We definitely made a big change in their lives.”

To participate in mission trips or donate, visit blancashouse.org.

For more stories about Long Islanders, visit newsday.com/LILife.

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