January 2013 Issue
December 18, 2012

Higher education locals, members respond to need

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: When United College Employees of FIT member Michele Nagel, center, had to vacate her storm-damaged home, fellow union member Marta Regulski, left, graciously housed Nagel, her fiance and her daughter for three weeks. Another union member, Ted Schachter, right, initiated a toy drive to help children who were victimized by Superstorm Sandy. Photo by Jonathan Fickies.

When she lost her house in the wrath of Superstorm Sandy, Breezy Point resident Michele Nagel could not turn to family for a place to stay. Seven of her family members also lost their homes. And cars. Her toddler, Samantha, lost her day care center.

"Whatever wasn't burned by fire was destroyed by flood,"said Nagel, a member of the United College Employees of Fashion Institute of Technology.

Nagel, director of evening, weekend and pre-college programs at FIT, was one of 15 UCE members who lost or had severely damaged homes. She turned quickly to her union. She applied for NYSUT Disaster Relief; received a grant from Union Plus, her credit card company; and got an interest-free loan from UCE.

"We've always had a fund for emergencies for our members, but we tripled the amount," said UCE President Roberta Elins. "It immediately puts cash in their hands."

This year, the UCE food drive will be directed to members in need, Elins said.

CUNY faculty and staff also turned to their union, Professional Staff Congress, for help. About 60 members were substantially impacted by damage to their homes, said Fran Clark, PSC communications coordinator.

At least a dozen lost homes. The union set up a hotline, 646-459-6888, for members to call for help. PSC has trained some of its staff to help members with the application and registration process for FEMA. The union also set up a form on its website, www.psc-cuny.org, that members can fill out to communicate what specific problems they are having, and staff can then respond. The site lists a plethora of resources, ranging from CUNY's free counseling services, to the governor's disaster homeowners repair and rebuild assistance program, to union programs.

PSC's retiree chapters have been making phone calls and sending emails to fellow retirees who were in the path of the storm to see how they are doing and let them know how their union can help them.

Classes at most CUNY colleges resumed Nov. 2 after four days, but Kingsborough Community College and Borough of Manhattan Community College did not reopen until Nov. 6. York College classes did not resume until Nov. 8 because the campus was used as an evacuation shelter for nearly 1,000 residents from the area of the Rockaways. On Long Island, some of those bereft and homeless by the storm surge came to Nassau Community College, where, at the peak of the crisis, 1,200 people bunked in an American Red Cross emergency shelter. It was still operating in December.

Nassau CC Federation of Teachers members, along with college administrators and other staff, brought in donations and helped organize goods left at the shelter for those in need. Many students and faculty themselves were storm victims.

Faculty have been scheduling extra study sessions and class time to make up for five lost days of classes.

"The faculty have really come together to accommodate the needs," said Debra DeSanto, NCCFT president, who is keeping members updated about avenues of assistance.

Members of the Faculty Association of Suffolk County Community College were among those who lost everything. The local union quickly donated $5,000 to the NYSUT Disaster Relief Fund.

"This is our Katrina," said FASCC President Ellen Schuler Mauk. The local union annually donates money for Thanksgiving baskets for local students and families in need. "This year we doubled our efforts."

The superstorm was followed by gas shortages, lack of electricity, and then a nor'easter that left up to 8 inches of heavy, wet snow. The college was closed for seven days of classes; SCCC administrators have appealed to Commissioner John King and SUNY Executive Vice Chancellor David LaVallee for a waiver for lost days.

Meanwhile, time will hang long and stretch tight for members impacted by the storm. Nagel was living in and renovating a bungalow formerly owned by her grandparents when Sandy came roaring in.

Restoration will not begin for two to three more months, she said, based on estimations for restoration of running water, electricity and heat.

While carrying these losses has been exhausting, Nagel broke down in tears only when she talked about the help she received — from her community bank to her colleagues who bought her daughter a new wardrobe.

"There is a tremendous outpouring of support from the FIT community," said Elins.