Hero Without A Home, Still

On the ground of where a home once stood on Midland Avenue is a white tent that has become a local provider for this patch of Staten Island, still struggling to survive almost a year after Sandy. Residents of the neighborhood visit daily for not only food, but also support.

The tent is the base of Midland Avenue Neighborhood Relief, a non-profit group founded by Aiman Youseff. He built this tent on the wreckage of his house to be a food hub right after Hurricane Sandy. A year later, it is the only one of its kind standing strong and providing food and supplies for the community seven days a week and 12 to 16 hours every day. After big-name organizations and non-profit groups, such as Occupy Sandy and the Red Cross, left Staten Island, Sandy victims here had nobody but local organizations like Youseff’s food hub.

Relying heavily on local donations the hub gives out hot meals, food, supplies, household needs, clothes, furniture, books, and more to anyone in need. Volunteers here also do referral services for people who need counseling. At least 150 families stop by the hub to get their necessities every day.

“Everything’s donated. People ride by, they see us, and they donate the clothes and the food. We even got a Christmas tree called ‘Hope,’” said John Childs, one of the head volunteers of Midland Avenue Neighborhood Relief. “This man is like he’s unreal. He saves people. He’s doing everything he can. But donation is what we need.”

Volunteers say the number of visitors coming to the food hub has increased recently. They say it is because more people are starting to move back to their Staten Island homes. But, a lot of the visitors are trying to juggle work and fixing their homes. For people choosing between earning a paycheck and fixing their homes, the existence of the Midland Avenue Neighborhood Relief is a big help for residents.

For Katrina Zeli, a Staten Island Sandy victim and a mother, the food hub has been a lifeline.

“We need diapers and wipes,” said Zeli, as she asks Childs at the food hub for size 3 diapers. “That’s the most expensive thing.”

Besides providing for the community, Youseff and his group also make constant efforts to bring people together with the help and collaboration from other local Staten Island organizations. This past weekend it hosted a Halloween event, Sandy’s Halloween Hope, trying to make up for the loss of Halloween celebrations for kids last year due to the storm.

The event served about 500 children in the neighborhood. The Episcopal Diocese of New York distributed 250 brand new winter coats for children. A long-time donator of the hub and sponsor of this event, Project Hospitality, provided supplies including food, a horse for children’s horseback riding, pumpkins, and 500 to 1,000 new toys and candy bags. Both Project Hospitality and the hub are members of the Staten Island Community and Interfaith Long-Term Recovery Organization.

“The grassroots are really taking charge. It’s like Aiman’s hub that’s helping people. Some dude who lost his house that dedicated everyday of his life 12 hours a day for a year to doing stuff like this,” said Karen Jackson, minister for social justice of Project Hospitality.

Jackson believes that the hub is more important than just serving food.

“Nobody helps so far. I signed up for Build It Back, Salvation Army, Red Cross. They don’t do anything. You call them and you talk to them. And you don’t hear back from them again. They say they will get in touch with you,” said Glenys Borg, a Sandy victim in Staten Island, a grandma of four kids and a daily visitor of the food hub. “[Aiman’s group] gave me stuff. It’s good. Yes, I still need it,” said Borg. “Because you know what, I had some rentals but they all got damaged. So my income went down to zero and I still had bills. I have to go into debt. I just hate to think about it.”

The hub becomes a communal space of psychological support for Staten Island residents.

“If I didn’t have this volunteering, my depression would be over the roof,” said Christopher Oliva, a Staten Island Sandy victim and volunteer at the hub, who has struggled with clinical depression before Sandy. “This place runs on love and sharing. This is an example of actual human positivity in effect. Half of us don’t even know each other’s name, but we come here and we are a family.”

Youseff will be moving into an apartment soon. His Midland Avenue Neighborhood Relief will stay at the same location where his old house was. He is now applying to make the hub a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization. He hopes that donations can keep coming and grants can become available once the process is completed.

“I said that last hot meal will be served [on anniversary of Sandy], because I promised God one year of my life and now I am giving him all my life,” said Youseff. “I’m going to continue to do so until everybody goes back to their homes. And then with a new mission to make my community better, stronger, safer, and do a disaster relief in all the states.”