Helene Brois could not bear to sit and watch another minute on the rabbit-eared television powered by a generator in her home in the wooded Whippoorwill neighborhood of Armonk. Many neighbors of Helene and Ted Brois had left their homes in the prolonged blackout on secluded streets where Sandy’s winds had uprooted trees that knocked down utility lines.
The owners of Brois Construction Cos. in Elmsford, builders of cell phone towers from New York to Vermont, were spared the worst of the storm. Their vacation home at Monterey Beach, amid the devastation on New Jersey’s barrier islands, had no flood damage or power loss, though half of their neighborhood was destroyed. They could not reach it, but their Jersey home was safe.
“It was the only point on the whole barrier island that was 11 feet above sea level,” Helene said of her spared summer domain. “I didn’t know that until now.”
“I felt so lucky to have what I have even if I had no power.” Like other volunteers moved to act in selfless, generous and at times heroic ways to ease the suffering and privations of the storm’s front-line victims, Helene decided it was time to stop watching.
“I was just very impulsive. I was watching the news and I just couldn’t watch any more. Literally I made up hand-made signs, on cardboard, and posted them in my town.”
Along Armonk’s Main Street, she left signs soliciting donations of supplies at the town pharmacy, the coffee and bagel and greeting card shops and a popular restaurant hangout. A former real estate broker in New York and New Jersey, she thought to leave a notice too with a broker at the local Prudential Douglas Elliman office. Knowing LaGravinese Jewelers had a large client list, she approached owner Debra LaGravinese, who agreed to send out the donations alert to her business email contacts. That is how the Business Journal heard of Helene’s private relief effort.
“Those were just my initial efforts,” she said at the Elmsford office of the construction company her husband started some 30 years ago. “From that, everything just comes in. Before I knew it, there were 200 people showing up for two days at my home – bags and bags of things.” The donations still come in.
Someone donated a 5,500-watt generator that would end up on Staten Island. “People went to the food store and bought $500 to $600 worth of food,” said Helene. “People were very, very generous. A lot of the stuff was new, not used, especially the baby stuff.” Another Westchester volunteer teaming with Helene on donations showed up with 25 bags of towels, bed sheets and pillows.
Helene began collecting on the first Saturday after the storm, “By the time Monday rolled around, the truck was full.”
It’s their company’s 14-year-old box truck that, between recent service runs to our most needy metropolitan neighbors, is parked off the driveway of the couple’s mansion-sized home on Tallwoods Road. Helene is comfortable driving it, though the urban driving conditions were quite uncomfortable on that Monday. Riding with her as “co-pilot” was Scott Cerosky, the couple’s insurance agent at Miller & Miller Insurance in Thornwood.
In the gas shortage, Helene wasn’t sure that the truck would have enough fuel for the relief run. They drove first to Staten Island, an early focal point of disaster aid, but were told the community had excess supplies. Relief workers there loaded still more goods onto the Brois truck but took the donated generator and Helene’s five-gallon reserve can of gas. They asked her to drive to Long Beach in Nassau County, where residents still had not been reached by Red Cross or Federal Emergency Management Agency workers.
The truck’s GPS directed them to main routes closed by storm damage and in some places left impassable by heaps of relocated Atlantic sand. They navigated side streets with one eye on the fuel gauge. “I said to my co-pilot Scott, we’ve got to get this right, because we don’t have enough fuel to get lost,” said Helene.
“They had so much relief” on Staten Island. “I really wanted to give it to the super-needy.”
They found those Sandy victims in the heart of Long Beach, a city of about 33,000 residents surrounded by water. It was turning dark as they arrived with directions to Cruzada Evangelical Missionary Church on the city’s oceanfront boulevard.
“It was absolutely, positively a nightmare,” said Helene. “When I crossed over that bridge, it was the most eerie feeling I’ve ever had in my life.”
“It was sad because there was no help there” one week after the storm struck. “There’s like two portajohns on the corners. … People barbecuing in driveways. … There was like three or four feet of sand on the streets.”
Within three minutes of the truck’s arrival at the church, about 50 Long Beachers showed up there. “They had no food. They had no electricity. They had no heat,” said Helene. “People crying and praying. Oh my God, it was so emotional.”
“Imagine having nothing, not even a tooth brush. No toilet paper. You can’t keep your children warm.”
It was past the emergency curfew hour when Helene and Scott left Long Beach and skirted past traffic lanes blocked by patience-testing gas-station lines to make it back to Armonk before the fuel tank ran dry. “It was a long day,” said Helene.
“Your donations were the first to arrive,” she told contributors in her next solicitation. “They accepted everything we sent, and they are still in desperate need of baby formula, diapers and supplies as well as clothing for all ages. With another storm possibly bearing down on the area, winter clothing is imperative.”
Westchester residents and businesses again generously answered her call. Early on a rennet Sunday, Ted Brois and the couple’s insurance agent and proven co-pilot drove the newly refilled box truck to Rockaway in Queens.
A third run is planned to Coney Island Tabernacle Church in battered Brooklyn. Helene said she is handing off the private relief operation to Emilia Secchiano, a Bedford Hills resident coordinating donations with Helene.
Unlike government-run disaster recovery centers that have opened for storm victims, “These churches are in the hearts of communities,” she said. “Where they’re making those outreaches is on the outskirts of these communities. I don’t know how people are going to get there.”
“The media is not telling the truth,” Helene said. “The devastation is way more than what people want to say.”