A group of high school students thought they were signing up for a summer of hockey and basketball. But thanks to the intervention of Mother Nature, they spent two days of their summer vacation acting as relief workers in an upstate New York town hit hard by recent downpours and flooding.
Torrential rains struck throughout the tri-state area late last month, causing mass flooding as the Susquehanna River overflowed its banks. On June ‘8, the town of Sidney, N.Y., got hit hard by the rain, which caused more than four feet of flooding in homes and businesses. It is the worst hit area outside of Binghamton, said Sidney Mayor James Warren.
Bobby Kaplan, director of Camp IBA, a Jewish hockey and basketball camp nestled in the Catskill Mountains near Sidney, had read of the town’s plight in the newspaper. The camp, which attracts teenagers from Bergen County, Long Island, and Israel, had been spared damage from the storms but still needed to restock its supplies afterward. When Kaplan drove into town, he saw what had happened to the camp’s neighbor.
"Thank God the camp was fine, but we didn’t realize the whole surrounding area was absolutely devastated," he said. On the Shabbat following the storm, Kaplan and several campers went on a Shabbat walk and saw that a nearby highway had been completely destroyed.
IBA campers brought grilled cheese sandwiches to Sidney Middle School for people displaced by recent flooding.
"It finally hit the kids that some major disasters were here," Kaplan said. "They could not believe the level of water over the homes."
The camp has a very close relationship with the town, Kaplan said. In the past, when camp activities were rained out, the town allowed campers to use its school gyms.
About 30 of the camp’s senior division campers prepared grilled cheese sandwiches and then climbed into two vans with Kaplan, along with bottled water, coloring books, and markers. They headed for the Sidney Middle School, which had been converted into a shelter for those forced out of their homes.
The students walked into the school’s lunchroom, which had been turned into a nurse’s station. Where there normally would have been tables full of students eating lunch, there were cots full of people with nowhere else to go. The students handed out the sandwiches and water they had brought and headed for the gymnasium. Groups of local children were sitting around with nothing to do. The campers handed out the coloring books and markers to the younger children and then played basketball with the older children.
"Going in I expected it to be awkward," said Chaim Cohen, a 17-year-old first-year camper from Teaneck. "In the end, it felt good going out. It felt like doing something but didn’t feel like work or charity."
For Cohen, it was the first time a disaster has struck so close. "It’s a wake-up call," he said.
The Red Cross and FEMA are just some of the aid organizations that were still in Sidney as of Wednesday. More than 500 homes were damaged, as well as the town’s largest employer, Amphenol Aerospace, which suffered $40 million in damages. The company employs approximately 1,600 people in the town of 4,050.
Warren said he wishes that he could personally thank every one of the volunteers for their help.
"No words can express the gratitude that exists in this community," he said. "The community rallied itself but the volunteers it’s beyond belief what they’ve done for us."
The campers spent two days at the middle school and are ready to go back if needed, Kaplan said. But now the town needs more technical aid to help it rebuild. "They have our number," Kaplan said. "Anytime they want, they can give a call."