Statewide Project Continues Offering Services to Sandy Victims
By: Sandy Eller
Published in the Jewish Press‚Äôs Health & Living, November 2013
While most people would describe the aftereffects of Hurricane Sandy by its financial impact, the number of inches of water that flooded their homes or the days it took until their electricity was restored, for many, last October‚Äôs superstorm left behind residuals that were far more insidious, wreaking havoc on their emotional wellbeing. Understanding that disasters often have far-reaching consequences that leave victims struggling to cope, the New York State Office of Mental Health created the Project Hope Crisis Counseling Program, which offered free and confidential counseling, education and other services to hurricane victims in and around the metropolitan area. Funded by FEMA and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Project Hope actively reached out to residents of the five boroughs as well as Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester and Rockland counties and continues to provide services to affected residents through February 1st, 2014.
Designed to empower storm victims by helping them rediscover their natural resilience, Project Hope knocked on doors offering free counseling, both in groups and in one and one sessions. Partnering with 16 provider agencies within its target area including OHEL, the Jewish Board of Family and Children‚Äôs Services and Westchester Jewish Family Services, which, in turn, reached out to other communal organizations, Project Hope joined with existing community organizations to reach local residents. ‚ÄúWe often find people who are still isolated,‚ÄĚ Tamar Renaud, director of Project Hope, told The Jewish Press. ‚ÄúEven though the majority of people have bounced back and moved back home, there are some who are still displaced, living with friends and family or in hotels. They may be the small minority but they are anxious, fearful and irritated by the whole process.‚ÄĚ
Ms. Renaud estimates that Project Hope‚Äôs staff of over 350 counselors has touched the lives of over 150,000 people and continues to work with storm victims to help them manage their reactions, assisting them in regaining control over extremely trying circumstances. ‚ÄúPeople are still living in places where their basements haven‚Äôt been redone because they didn‚Äôt get the money they expected from FEMA and their insurance companies,‚ÄĚ explained Ms. Renaud. ‚ÄúThere is a lot of stress there and we help them work through those emotions by using deep breathing exercises to pass through those moments.
For the people who are really struggling to cope, we provide referrals to mental health professionals.‚ÄĚ Isolation is another factor that prevents people from moving ahead with their lives. ‚ÄúWe had one case in Howard Beach where a man had been isolated for a while and our crisis counselors worked with him to identify the people in his life,‚ÄĚ recalled Ms. Renaud. ‚ÄúHe had been separated from his family, his mother had passed away and after a few sessions he decided to reconnect with his fishing buddies. By doing that, he regained his sense of hope and was able to start taking the necessary steps to reconstruct his life.‚ÄĚ For Sandy‚Äôs youngest victims, the road to recovery has been a difficult one. ‚ÄúSome children were displaced both from their homes and their schools,‚ÄĚ explained Ms. Renaud. ‚ÄúEntire schools were evacuated and children were placed in other schools for months. There were even stories of kids who had lost their clothes and were made fun of for wearing donated ‚ÄėSandy clothes‚Äô by other children.‚ÄĚ OHEL was one of several agencies within the Jewish community that participated in Project Hope. ‚ÄúThis was not the typical fourwalled program,‚ÄĚ said Tzivy Reiter of OHEL. ‚ÄúThis was very outreach oriented and we went out to the impacted communities and literally weathered it all. We went to freezing cold trailers, shuls, schools, houses of worship, community centers. The idea was to go where the people were.‚ÄĚ According to Mrs. Reiter, those in affected areas welcomed OHEL‚Äôs team of approximately 35 crisis counselors with open arms.
‚ÄúIt was heartbreaking to see how people were impacted, are still being impacted even months later. We were surprised to find that there were people out there who still weren‚Äôt connected with any agencies who could help them. It seemed the rest of the world had gone on, leaving them behind and they were happy to hear that someone still cared about them.‚ÄĚ The magnitude of Sandy‚Äôs destruction made it crucial to have crisis counselors who were familiar with several different populations. ‚ÄúIt was important to hire staff from within the affected communities and not just bring in outsiders,‚ÄĚ explained Mrs. Reiter. ‚ÄúWe needed someone who knew the needs of the communities and spoke their languages. We had people who spoke Yiddish, Russian, Hebrew, Cantonese, Mandarin and Spanish. Disasters don‚Äôt discriminate. They affect everyone.‚ÄĚ
Rabbi Yochanan Ivry of Congregation Toras Emes in the Oakwood section of Staten Island, located approximately one mile from the borough‚Äôs shoreline, praised OHEL‚Äôs Project Hope program for the many programs they ran throughout the year. ‚ÄúThey did one on one counseling and group sessions that helped reinforce the group dynamic and provided a sense of community,‚ÄĚ said Rabbi Ivry. ‚ÄúThey were there at a time when we desperately needed to know that there were still people who were out there, caring.‚ÄĚ Nathan Krasnovsky, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of the Rockaway Peninsula worked hand in hand with OHEL‚Äôs Project Hope team members. ‚ÄúThey had an office right next to mine with a conference room, where they did group sessions and one on one counseling,‚ÄĚ said Krasnovsky. ‚ÄúA lot of times when you give someone a phone number, nothing will happen because they won‚Äôt make the call. But when they are right there on site with us, right next door, people walk in and are seen immediately.‚ÄĚ Krasnovsky commended Project Hope for its dedicated outreach efforts. ‚ÄúThey have posters everywhere and huge maps up on their walls so that there isn‚Äôt a place or a house that goes unnoticed. They are really on the move, making sure that everyone is taken care of.‚ÄĚ Despite the months that have elapsed since Sandy, Krasnovsky noted that the area is still on edge. ‚ÄúAbout a week ago I was at the doctor‚Äôs office and there was another blackout that literally lasted five minutes,‚ÄĚ recalled Krasnovsky. ‚ÄúEveryone panicked because it brings you back to that moment.‚ÄĚ
As Project Hope begins to wind down, Ms. Renaud expressed optimism that those who were still attempting to cope would continue to receive help through other avenues. ‚ÄúWe want to make sure we find the people who are still really struggling, link them up with mental health services and doctors and make them aware of the community resources that will still be available to them.‚ÄĚ If you feel overwhelmed, call 1800-LIFENET to connect with a Project Hope provider agency in your community. LIFENET is a free, confidential helpline for NYC residents available 24/7 with trained staff ready to take your calls.