Smoky Mountain High graduate Shannon Murphy has always been destined to make a difference in the world. Even as a young child, Murphy would lead her friends on missions to help others whether it was as a seventh grader when she and two friends traded their own Christmas presents to give them to less fortunate children in their school or as a high school student who spearheaded efforts to collect items to send to Hurricane Katrina victims. Whatever the cause, if the end result was to help others, even complete strangers, Murphy was first in line to volunteer her time.
In her most recent mission to save the world, Murphy found herself volunteering with five friends in Far Rockaway Queens, an area of New York City that has been devastated by Hurricane Sandy. After graduating from Smoky High School in 2006, Murphy left Jackson County and headed back north for college. Attending St. John's University for her undergrad and then New York University for her graduate studies in social work, when the Northeast was hit by Hurricane Sandy, Murphy was among the millions without power.
Spending eight days in her Hackensack, New Jersey home without power, she experienced firsthand the effect the super-storm had on her friends and neighbors. While still recovering from the storm themselves, Murphy and her friends found time to travel to an area that was in complete ruins to volunteer and help people begin to rebuild their lives.
The Rockaway peninsula stretches across the southern coast of Queens and Brooklyn. During Hurricane Sandy, much of the peninsula was under close to seven feet of water. Cars left in these areas were completely submerged, basements and first floors of homes were ruined. In the Breezy Point section of the Rockaways, more than 100 homes burned to their foundations.
“During the weekend of Nov. 17, a friend of mine, Kasey Epstein, and I traveled out to the Rockaways to volunteer for the second time since the storm,” explained Murphy. “We were matched with two British journalists, Beatrice and Jane, in a volunteer carpool line outside a distribution center in Brooklyn. The four of us loaded our car with much needed supplies such as bleach, blankets, batteries, flashlights, baby items, canned food, bottled water, and transported them to a church operating as a distribution center in the Rockaways. At this time, three weeks after the storm, most of the peninsula was still without power. The water was unsafe to drink. Temperatures were dropping, and residents, some newborn babies and elderly, were without heat.”
While unloading their car at the church, the group met a local resident, Valerie, who told them about a neighborhood of the Far Rockaway section of the peninsula she called “The Bungalows.” According to Valerie, Murphy and Epstein wouldn’t believe what they would see there. “Kasey and I, both social workers who felt as though we’d ‘seen it all,’ found that hard to believe,” said Murphy. “She told us to load our car with more supplies and follow her van out to the Bungalows. While we were loading the car, we met another local resident, Bolu, a recent high school graduate who had only just gotten his own power back that day, but still wanted to help others in need. Bolu occupied the last empty seat in our car, and we shipped out.”
The group of five drove carefully through the streets that were still covered in sand, passing cars that were ultimately inoperable, damaged by the flood. “As we drove, we dodged piles of rubble that was being tossed into the streets from gutted homes. Finally, we arrived in the Bungalows,” remembered Murphy.
The Beachside Bungalow Preservation Area stretches between Beach 24th Street to Beach 27th street, below Seagirt Blvd. in the Far Rockaway section of the peninsula. Most of the homes there are one story bungalows that had been gentrified in the 1980s. Many of these historic homes were flooded and families there lost nearly everything they had.
“When we arrived in this area, we quickly discovered that the mass distributions of supplies had not yet reached this area,” said Murphy. “Immediately when we pulled up, Valerie’s van was bombarded with people grabbing anything and everything they could from the back. It resembled a scene from a third world country. Parents with children in tow begging us for anything we had to give. They were cold, hungry, there was no working transportation, no stores open. The people there were simply stranded in a deserted area of the storm devastated peninsula.”
Murphy explained that the group was particularly moved by the children they met in the neighborhood. “As we went door to door handing out ‘army food,’ packs of ready to eat meals typically used by troops on the battlefield, the children all watched us,” she said. “One boy approached me and said, ‘Miss, do you have any basketballs?’ It was then I realized just how this awful storm had affected the young children who may not have fully understood what had happened.”
After seeing the impact the storm had on the smallest victims in the Rockaways, Murphy's giving nature took over and she immediately began brainstorming ways to help the children get back to normal, if that was even possible at this point. “As we got back into the car to leave that day, I asked my car mates, three of whom were strangers earlier that day if they’d be interested in doing something for these children for Christmas,” said Murphy. “Immediately, ideas were thrown around. Since all of us have full time jobs, we were simply not able to assist in the much needed rebuilding and clean up efforts that are happening in this area 24/7. But we felt compelled to help any way we could.”
Through the group's ambition to help in whatever way they could, Operation: Bring Christmas to the Bungalows was born. “Our team of five, each of us with very different but valuable strengths and skills, began developing what would ultimately be Christmas for the children in the Bungalows, who had lost all of their beloved belongings in the storm,” explained Murphy. “Some parents in the neighborhood, overwhelmed with the cost of repairs and replacing lost food, furniture, etc. may not have been able to afford gifts for their children this Christmas. Operation: Bring Christmas to the Bungalows has offered a sense of hope to this family, some joy following months of sadness.”
According to Murphy, with the help of Jessica, a teenager who lives in the Bungalows, the group has been able to obtain information on 75 children who will be benefiting from the program this year. “With the help of all of our very generous supporters, we are expecting to receive close to 300 toys, meaning each child will receive more than one gift.”
Murphy and the rest of the group have built the project through social media. Starting with a Facebook page: Operation: Bring Christmas to the Bungalows, all the children that have been identified by the group have been able to get sponsors. “We found that Facebook was a free, fast way to reach people from many different geographical locations and keep them updated on our progress,” said Murphy. “Within the first two days after creating the group, we had over 30 likes, we now have nearly 80. We have received messages via Facebook from various contributors from individual donors and volunteers, to major companies in Manhattan, and media that wanted to know more about our project. Last week we were featured on CNN.com. We have also been approached by the New York Post, as well as the Rockaway Wave, a local paper on the peninsula.”
Murphy did not limit herself to those who heard about the project via Facebook, but took the project even further by reaching out to schools in Western North Carolina. “As a Smoky Mountain High School graduate, I can remember my senior year when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf coast,” said Murphy. “I can remember working with the student council at SMHS to collect items and raise funds to donate to the Red Cross for Katrina relief. When Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey and New York and I, myself, was without power and water for more than eight days, that collection took on a whole new meaning to me. I realized how much it must have meant to the victims, as I myself was unsure if I’d be able to afford food- all of ours had been spoiled, our paychecks hadn’t come through due to the banks flooding, there was a gas shortage that resulted in rationing. I took my first public shower in a local YMCA after going three days without, and even though I always thought I had ‘too many’ blankets, it still didn’t seem like enough when my apartment dropped to below 45 degrees inside. But despite this, I knew there were people suffering much worse than me, like the people in the Bungalows.”
Murphy remembered the willingness of her family and friends back in Western North Carolina when she was in high school and hoped that the same would stand true in her adult life. “I remembered the generosity that existed in the schools in Western North Carolina when I attended them, and so they were among the first to know about Operation: Bring Christmas to the Bungalows. Mountain Discovery Charter School in Bryson City immediately took on the challenge,” said Murphy. “They set a goal to collect 100 new toys for us. Children and parents brought in new toys to donate and the school held a pizza party to raise money for more gifts. My former fifth grade teacher from Smoky Mountain Elementary School, Ms. Mary Ann Roos, very kindly reached out to me on her own and offered support. She contacted her church members about our project. Sean Murphy, my brother and a Swain County High School alum, is now part of a fraternity, Sigma Chi, at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. They took action immediately as well and began collecting gifts for us, particularly for the teen boys in the Bungalows. Ruby Burns Peoples and her husband Will, also contacted me and will be buying gifts for a family of three.”
As a social worker, Murphy never imagined being so affected by the devastation. While Operation: Bring Christmas to the Bungalows will help the families who were devastated get through the holidays, rebuilding has just begun. “The first weekend I volunteered in the Rockaways was very emotional,” said Murphy. “Utilizing our social work experience, Kasey, and I teamed up with other volunteers from New York Communities for Change and ‘canvassed’ an area of Far Rockaway, going door to door conducting needs assessments on residents that had been affected,” continued Murphy. “Simply put, there wasn’t a single home that wasn’t affected by the storm. For some of the homes we went to that day, which was two weeks after the storm, we were the first people who had knocked on their door. FEMA had not yet been there, they had not yet seen the Red Cross, we were the first ones to say, ‘Are you okay?’
“We saw many tears that day. People who had lived in these homes for decades and they were now destroyed. Beautiful, very old furniture could be seen on the side of the street covered in mold,” she continued. “One woman, a senior, was home alone with her daughter who was eight and a half months pregnant. They had no heat, no water, no electricity, and no phone service. There were no buses running. Their car had been flooded and no longer worked. She cried telling us she didn’t know what to do if her daughter was to go into labor. How would they get to the hospital? How would they call for help? Suddenly the FEMA fliers we were handing out seemed obsolete.
“One man approached us in the street. He and his wife were both diabetic and running low on medications. Another woman had no more diapers for her toddler and stores were still closed. Almost everyone we spoke to had been out of work for several weeks, losing pay everyday.”
When she seemed to be up against the world, Murphy said the one thing that encouraged her to continue helping and wanting to do more for the people she met, was despite all they had lost, they still seemed to be all right. “One thing I couldn’t help but notice is that people still smiled,” said Murphy. “Residents hugged us. They laughed with us, they joked with us. One of the questions on our needs assessment form was ‘Are you interested in relocating?’ Absolutely no one said, ‘yes.’ The people in this area want to and will rebuild. They will overcome the devastation that Sandy caused. Neighbors are helping neighbors, strangers are helping strangers. This storm did not discriminate, and neither will the help. Even after we deliver all of the toys to these families, they will still need help cleaning up and rebuilding their lives. The process of recovery will not end for a very long time. I told one woman I met that it will take a long time for things to go back to normal, but each day it will get a little bit better. When I went back to visit her a week later, her situation hadn’t changed much- she was still without power and water, but she hugged me and said, ‘I’m still standing.’”
Volunteers from Operation: Bring Christmas to the Bungalows will be delivering all gifts on Saturday, Dec. 15. If you or someone you know is interested in donating or volunteering, visit www.facebook.com/BringChristmasToTheBungalows or contact Brittney Parker at The Macon County News for more information, at (828)369-6767.