Some parents seemed teary already Thursday as they gathered in the cafeteria at P.S. 41 on Staten Island for a holiday breakfast organized for them by the PTA.
These are proud people, not used to taking handouts, and many are still shell-shocked at the toll Sandy took on them. But they've learned to accept kindness from strangers ever since the ferocious storm turned their lives upside down. The elementary school has rallied to help 115 local families.
This group was about to discover there was a bit more in store for them than donuts, juice and fresh fruit.
The Marine Corps Toys for Tots provided each family with toys for the children. Local merchants, residents and former teachers pooled resources to provide upwards of $50 worth of gift cards per family. But even principal Elise Feldman didn't know the biggest surprise to come.
I live on Manhattan's Upper West Side and until last month had never been to Staten Island. But after the storm, I was moved by a tweet from singer Jon Bon Jovi: "We help others who are in need. We may not have electricity, but we have power."
Thanks to more than $100,000 in contributions in just 15 days from friends, family and contacts I have met through my business, Spark & Hustle, my family and I have driven to Staten Island over the past few weekends and put money in the hands of people hurt by Sandy.
We've spent Saturdays at a Home Depot there helping families buy products -- from tools to appliances -- to get their lives going again.
We've met brave moms like Marlene LaSalle, who bashed through a sliding door window with her right hand to allow her five children to escape from their home as the Atlantic gushed in. Since that night, she has been cooking for her family of seven with a microwave. She cried as we picked out a new gas range and a refrigerator, then shed more tears when we headed over to Target and bought kitchen essentials, clothing and a few toys for Julian, her adorable son who is a kindergartener at P.S. 41.
Marlene cut her arm so badly that she thought she'd die from loss of blood. She still has nightmares about being unable to help neighbors whose screams she heard as she led her kids to safety.
My family has been deeply moved by hearing people like Marlene, and Diane and Nick Camerada, who describe losing everything they had built over decades. Not just their homes, which are still wrecks and months away from returning to anything resembling normal. But gone forever are many belongings and things that made them smile like the gigantic koi pond Nick dug by hand, the small boat he bought as a retirement gift to himself after years as a UPS driver and the bike he made from scrap metal for his wife so they could ride together near the beach.
People like them made me want to do something big for their community.
I had promised those who donated that I would put money directly into the hands of people in need. And that's exactly what we did on this day.
I handed $500 gift cards to each of the 115 families at P.S. 41 -- $ 57,500 in all. (Watch the emotion captured in this WABC report.) I encouraged parents to buy whatever they need, wherever they want. But as a small business owner, I encouraged them to support their local merchants. "You may save money shopping at a big box store, but you may save a neighbor by shopping at a small business."
The gesture wasn't just about the cash -- it was so much more. Having a stranger show up meant even more to them. It was a sign that they're not forgotten. That hope is alive.
Of course, everyone was grateful and more tears flowed. I cried too. There's no better feeling than being able to help someone in need. As Bon Jovi says, "It's what we do."