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Sandy charity Camp Bulldog ending mission

Volunteers Dean Karaman, left, and May Ellen Schnepf,

Volunteers Dean Karaman, left, and May Ellen Schnepf, both of West Islip, serve hot food to guests at Camp Bulldog in Lindenhurst's Shore Road Park. (Feb. 25, 2013) Credit: Barry Sloan

Hanging on a wall of Camp Bulldog's tent, amid donations for superstorm Sandy victims, is a gift from a print shop in Nova Scotia.

The laminated sign reads: "If not us, who? If not now, when?"

The sign sums up the mission of the Lindenhurst camp, a grassroots effort formed in the days after Sandy to provide relief for residents whose homes had been destroyed and lives turned upside-down. Fueled by social media, it has been one of the longest-running and most successful post-Sandy volunteer relief efforts on Long Island.

Now it's coming to an end.

After six months of offering meals, information and sympathetic ears, Camp Bulldog is closing at the end of April.

"It's been a long six months but a wonderful six months," said camp manager Andrea Curran, a retired Lindenhurst teacher who lives in West Islip. "We'll all take a lot away from this, but it's time for a breather."

The camp was born when Lindenhurst residents Robin DiGiacomo, 58, and husband Morris Hartman, 61, solicited donations from local restaurants and served dinner from a Wellwood Avenue driveway. The site quickly became known as a place to pick up a hot meal and cleaning supplies. Volunteers named it "Camp Bulldog" after the Lindenhurst schools mascot.

"I don't think anyone expected us to be here this long," DiGiacomo said.


Offering help, comfort

The camp eventually moved to the parking lot of Shore Road Park, where it remains. The tent -- crammed with tables and chairs, a hot buffet, supplies, pamphlets and a food pantry -- was donated by the FDNY. It is warmed by a propane heater loaned by one of Curran's former students. Surrounding it are tractor trailers, storage pods and even a Dumpster, all filled with supplies.

Curran has been coordinating since the beginning -- managing donations, introducing residents to Project Hope counselors who offer mental health services, and helping people obtain legal and medical assistance provided by outside agencies at the camp.

Lindenhurst Deputy Mayor Kevin McCaffrey said village officials often gained insight into residents' plights from the camp.

"I know the time has come, but they have really stepped up and provided so much relief," he said, giving residents "a feeling of hope and of community when people needed it most."

Curran, 58, and about 20 volunteers worked seven days a week until Christmas. Then they cut back to four days to avoid enabling people, she said, to "make sure they could do things on their own." This month they cut out Fridays and serve hot food only on weekends.

As recently as last month, more than 400 people showed up on weekends. "We could do this for years and we'd still have people coming," Curran said.

The camp's success has been due in large part to social media. The group's Facebook page, Lindenhurst After Hurricane Sandy, attracted a global response to requests for donations, including from more than 130 businesses.

"We'll put on there that we're out of something and it'll appear in the tent within a day," Curran said. "It's just incredible."

Resident Amy Castiglia got the site up and running. Curran's daughter Caitlin Curran, 26, a Lindenhurst teacher who runs the page now, said, "As much as people want to help, they don't know where to go and this gave them that."

Curran said the page will remain up, offering the latest post-Sandy information. That's what residents need most now, volunteers say.

"Before it was about the food and they would take it and leave," said volunteer Donna Stippel, 55, of Huntington. But then, she said, people started "coming for the information, to share their stories, talk about their problems and ask where they should go from here."

Now the tent has to be returned and athletic teams need the parking lot for games in the nearby fields. Long Island Cares opened recently in downtown Lindenhurst and does most of what the camp has been doing, Curran said.

"All the indications are there," she said. "It's more of a struggle to get hot food, donations are down because people are moving on, and you can't keep asking the same group of people."


Sisters in action

It's a Friday afternoon and Linda Vanderhoof is drinking coffee and talking to neighbor Jackie Salvia about the progress on their houses. Salvia had her roof repaired the day before. Vanderhoof and her sister, Mildred Perrotta, finally got some new beams and flooring and hope they can move back in May.

"Sometimes it just helps to talk to somebody else in the same situation," Perrotta said.

After Sandy devastated their house, Vanderhoof, 64, and Perrotta, 63, started coming to the camp for coffee.

When they were able to, the sisters began taking items from the pantry and cooking for the camp: chili from industrial-sized cans of beans, mac and cheese from boxes of pasta.

"We weren't getting help from anyone else but them," Perrotta said. "It just started as giving back for what they gave to us."

Joanne Milito, a licensed social worker who came to the camp after losing most of her belongings to Sandy, will give back by holding weekly group therapy sessions after the camp closes. "A lot of people still need to tell their story," she said.

Many patrons agree it's time for the camp to close; volunteers have mixed emotions. Providing food, Stippel said, "is my way of doing things to help and that part's going to be gone . . . This has been my life."

But, Curran said, residents are getting back on their feet.

"It's a strong community," she said. "We were there for the rough part, but they're going to be OK."

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