At least 10 times since Superstorm Sandy struck New York in late October, Southampton resident Romi Sloan's garage has filled to capacity with donations to Hamptons Hurricane Relief Fund, the charity she started with Kym Smith, of East Quogue, in the wake of the disaster.
Sloan said Tuesday — as the pair spent their afternoon sorting through donations of clothes, books, food and more — that at least once a week a truck stuffed to the brim leaves the garage to bring aid to people in need on Long Island and Staten Island.
"I almost feel like we're a clearing house," Sloan said. In addition to the garage being full, "my basement is filled with furniture."
"There is always stuff coming in and going out," Smith added.
Bridgehampton National Bank in Southampton, where Sloan said her business has banked for years, has served as a dropoff location for donations, of both supplies and money. "Bridgehampton National Bank has been amazing," she said; the bank donated hats, and its employees have donated money and always help load the truck with donations.
Sloan's truck also travels for pickups. Recently, Hamptons Hurricane Relief Fund accepted a donation of 6,000 children's books from DK Publishing. Sloan said she drove to Fred Shores in Babylon with a pallet of books and began handing them out from the truck. Children lined up. "Within five minutes, the books were gone."
Both Sloan and Smith have thrown their lives into their charity, which they began after witnessing the devastation Superstorm Sandy wrought and the immense need of Sandy's victims. Sloan and Smith agreed Tuesday — going on three months since the storm made landfall in the Northeast — that they do not anticipate their work will be done for years to come.
This coming weekend, Sloan will head to Babylon with the truck to make a delivery. Smith will be in Mastic Beach with a crew of 35 volunteers to gut a moldy storm-ravaged house, an activity that has become customary for her.
Sloan said that being without Internet and cable for days following Superstorm Sandy, she did not immediately know the extent of the damage. But when she checked in on her friend in Babylon, she learned the friend's home had been completely destroyed. Owning a landscaping design firm, Gardens by Romi, she decided to take her company truck and her crew to Babylon to help gut the house. She said her friend's home, located one house away from the bay, was essentially reduced to confetti.
Smith, the bookkeeper of Gardens by Romi, offered to join Sloan's effort, and Hamptons Hurricane Relief Fund was formed, with an open offer to help any storm victims who need a hand, whether they be friends or strangers.
"I feel it's been the best three months of my life," Sloan said. "It's just restored our faith in humanity."
The charity has come a long way in a short period when it comes to both familiarity and the number of people Hamptons Hurricane Relief Fund has helped.
"In the beginning when we were going to Babylon, we were going door to door saying, 'Can I help you?'" Sloan recalled. "But people don't really want to accept help."
But she said now that she and Smith are known and word of Hamptons Hurricane Relief Fund has spread, requests are pouring in.
Smith said in the first weeks following Superstorm Sandy, immediate needs such as toilet paper and infant formula were at the top of their list. But now, she said, money and construction materials are the priority.
It is true that every dollar donated counts, Sloan said. "If a hundred people give us $5, that's $500 — you can buy a lot of Sheetrock for $500."
Smith, who keeps the fund's books, assured, "Not a dime goes to someone who isn't desperately in need."
Victims can't wait for insurance checks to come in the mail before they fix their homes, Smith said. Some are living on the second floor of their homes because their ground level is missing a floor, and others are essentially living in filth, because of the mold that has taken hold after floodwaters receded, she said. "We find that people are being nickeled and dimed by the insurance companies," she said.
Sloan and Smith's most memorable relief trip was on Dec. 23 to Staten Island, one of the most devastated areas. Along with a firetruck that had Christmas music blasting, they delivered gifts — while Smith was dressed like Frosty the Snowman.
"These people didn't have any hope," Sloan said. "Even the adults were like, 'Oh my God, you made our day.'"
Smith said one elderly woman told her it was the best Christmas she ever had — which was unbelievable considering all she had lost. But the woman explained, "Never in her life had she been with so many good people."
The Hamptons Hurricane Relief Fund has become a family affair for Smith. She said her husband, Ciaran, is a carpenter who is among the tradesmen who volunteer. Their three children, 15-year-old Sean, 8-year-old Shannon and 3-year-old Brayden, each pitch in as well, whether it be gutting houses or handing out food. Sean and his fellow students at Westhampton Beach High School also raised $250 for the fund.
"It certainly is an amazing life lesson for them," Smith said.
Sloan said that living in a small town is a blessing, because people want to help.
Just to name a couple examples, she said the congregation at St. John's Episcopal Church took up a collection, and one of her Gardens by Romi clients, who wished to remain anonymous, recently donated seven huge bags of hardly used winter jackets and boots for children.
A number of Southampton businesses chip in to the effort. Sloan said every couple weeks she buys $500 worth of pet food at a reduced cost from One Stop Pet Shop to distribute, and the owner, Sue Orlando, gives even more food complimentary. Bill Villano at One Source Tool Supply donated boxes of used tools, as well as respirators for volunteers to wear while gutting moldy houses. Lynch's Garden Center also donated tools, and Renaissance Boutique gave 10 percent of the proceeds from its holiday sale party to the fund. Sloan said Second Nature health food store and Tate's Bake Shop have been generous as well.
Donations come in from all over the country too, as people outside the tristate area look for ways to help, Sloan said. Other foundations have also reached out to help, including Matthew's Wish, which held a toy drive; Fealgood Foundation, which is sending the 35 volunteers to Mastic Beach this weekend; and the Johnny Mac Foundation, which began after 9/11 in memory of a firefighter.
"They're all like family to each other, and it's really nice that they have welcomed us to that family," Smith said.
Sloan and Smith are working toward 501(c)(3) nonprofit status for Hamptons Hurricane Relief Fund, and they may change the name, as their efforts branch out beyond hurricane relief, and provide aid for all types of disasters.
"In the future, we'll grow into something broader," Smith said.
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