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Stars of Hope Foundation empowers Long Beach residents throughout Sandy recovery

Steps from where the Long Beach boardwalk used

Steps from where the Long Beach boardwalk used to stand, a star made by a Long Beach Catholic student reminds residents that their community will come back. (March 28, 2012) Credit: Tara Conry

When superstorm Sandy knocked out power to the City of Long Beach, leaving residents in the dark for weeks, the stars in the sky provided the only light when the sun went down.

“It was beautiful,” recalled Janet Sorenson, 60, of Long Beach, on Thursday as she continued to work on restoring her 96-year-old mother’s first-floor apartment. Five months after the devastating storm struck the city, Sorenson and many other residents are still recovering, but it’s a different display of stars brightening their days.

Posted on utility poles, trees and street signs within a five-block radius of Long Beach Catholic Regional School are more than 500 colorful wooden stars that each bear a unique and inspiring message. “Hope,” “Strong Beach,” “You Can Do It,” and “Bruised But Not Broken” are just some of the words painted on the stars by students from the school.

“We have a daily reminder of what we’ve been through,” said the school’s principal, Veronica Danca, referring to the nearby Long Beach boardwalk, which is in the process of being reconstructed.

The wooden stars are a different kind of visual reminder -- one aimed at helping the students, staff and community at large move forward -- that came to Long Beach thanks to the Stars of Hope Foundation.

An offshoot of the New York Says Thank You Foundation, a nonprofit formed in response to the outpouring of support New Yorkers received after 9/11, the Stars of Hope Foundation is led by Patrick Samuels, 48, of Groesbeck, Texas. The group travels to places impacted by hurricanes, tornadoes and mass shootings to empower the community with their handmade stars.

Jeff Parness, founder of New York Says Thank You, remembered that Samuels had been searching for a way to help others ever since New York Says Thank You rebuilt one of his relatives’ homes when it was destroyed by a massive tornado in 2006. Parness reached out to Samuels in 2007 with an idea to uplift the Greensburg, Kan., community after it was devastated by a tornado, and Samuels and his family got right to work. They made 220 wooden stars and stakes, drove them to Kansas, and helped students paint messages on them that would empower their community to rebuild.

Since then, Samuels has brought tens of thousands of stars to towns in Texas, Missouri, Illinois, Georgia, Arkansas, New York, New Jersey and even Newtown, Conn. Everywhere he goes, he recruits new members for his foundation’s national advisory board and inspires others to pay it forward.

“All of us in some way are disaster survivors,” said Samuels of the volunteers he picks up along the way.

Stars of Hope posted stars around Long Beach in mid-January, and during that visit also conducted projects at schools in Long Beach, Howard Beach and Breezy Point.

After seeing the impact the program had on her students, one teacher in Howard Beach signed up to conduct a Stars of Hope project in Oceanside in May, so Samuels sent her 600 stars this week. An additional 1,650 stars will be painted at the 9/11 museum in April and placed in other communities impacted by Sandy.

Although the group has placed more than 5,000 stars throughout the metropolitan area since superstorm Sandy, Samuels said there is still a huge demand for his projects because so many areas were devastated.

“A lot of times when a disaster happens … kids are left powerless,” he said. “Our goal is to empower them.”

Danca said the project touched her students on many levels. They were grateful somebody from outside Long Beach wanted to come in to do something beautiful for their community and proud that they were selected for the task.

She added, “It's still amazing to drive down the streets to see them still there, still being a source of hope.”

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