December 2011 Issue
November 22, 2011

Members say 'thank you' for disaster aid

Author: Betsy Sandberg
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi gives a NYSUT Disaster Relief Fund check to Joan Berdine, vice president of the Johnson City Employees Association, whose home was heavily damaged. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Jackie Willis lost everything on the first floor of her home in Owego, even her shoes.

Then she went to work as a kindergarten teacher at Owego Elementary to find 22 years of materials and supplies gone as well.

"The last three months have been stressful," said the member of the Owego Apalachin Teachers Association. "It's one thing to have lost almost everything from my home of 45 years," Willis pauses, "then to come to work and to start from zero, well, it has been hard."

Even her church was flooded out.

"For years I have always given to charitable efforts, and I need people to know what it is like to be on the receiving end," Willis said.

Pam Donovan agreed, wanting NYSUT members to know it means the world to get any kind of aid, especially after flood insurance agencies and government agencies tell you "no."

"That's the lesson we have learned," said Donovan, a secretary and vice president of the Owego-Apalachin Employees Association. "You hear no, no, no. So then to get a check from NYSUT, when I haven't seen anything from my insurance company yet, well, I want people to know how I cried when I opened that envelope. That check meant we could go buy light fixtures so we could see at night and faucets for the bathrooms."

While it's not the intent to make members cry, NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Lee Cutler said it is the intent to provide support to members in need. "We make sure that every penny of our fund provides direct support to members who suffer losses. Most often these are natural disasters like hurricanes, floods or fires," said Cutler, who is overseeing the relief effort. So far, more than 130 NYSUT members have applied for direct support from the fund. This year's flooding swamped 30 counties and impacted tens of thousands. A number of locals continue raising funds. So many requests have come in for aid that currently the NYSUT Disaster Relief Fund needs donations to cover all the requests to help members repair their homes and cover other basic needs.

For Emily Morse, there is no going home again. The Prattsville house that was in her family for five generations is set to be bulldozed. The land can never be built on again. A guidance secretary and president of the 39-member Windham-Ashland-Jewett Support staff in the Prattsville schools, she is living in her sister's house while she and her husband await the delivery of a FEMA trailer.

"We are thankful we still have our jobs, each other, our family and friends," Morse said. Like Willis and Donovan, she said the $500 check from the NYSUT Disaster Relief Fund was desperately needed. In her family it went toward work boots, food, socks, underclothes and a replacement vehicle. "When you have lost everything, like we have, every little bit helps," Morse said.

All three women said the generosity from the community and their unions, and from people they don't even know, can be overwhelming.

"Especially considering how we are used to being the ones helping out those in need," Donovan said, noting that for years she has participated in fundraisers at NYSUT conferences. In October, members at the SRP conference raised funds for disaster relief and collected more than 1,200 books for Southern Tier schools.

Assembling a basket to be raffled at the conference, "meant more to me knowing so many of us have filled out applications," Donovan said. "We're not used to asking for help. We're used to being the ones everyone turns to for help."

Morse agreed. "It has been very overwhelming for me to receive items, money, prayers and best wishes from complete strangers," she writes in a letter. "It is difficult to thank someone properly when you are in this circumstance."

Go to and click on "thank you letter" to read Emily Morse's letter about the Aug. 28 flood and the aftermath.