Thanksgiving will be a bittersweet occasion for those whose lives were uprooted by superstorm Sandy, as many residents of the coastal areas of New York and New Jersey have not been able to resume anything resembling a normal life.
In recognition of these challenging and often heartbreaking circumstances, the Minor League Baseball community has marshaled its considerable resources into what has been dubbed the "Helping Hand" initiative. The efforts are multi-pronged, taking place in the three Minor League markets most impacted by the storm: Staten Island, Coney Island and the Jersey Shore. Team employees, the New York-Penn League Foundation and Minor League Baseball Charities have teamed to donate time, money and supplies, partnering with local relief organizations to insure maximum impact and efficiency.
A major force behind the Helping Hand effort is Gary Perone, director of new business development for the Brooklyn Cyclones. As a Brooklyn native who lives in Staten Island (and who had previously worked for the Staten Island Yankees), Perone is well-connected in both communities.
"There's been so much work to do since the storm hit, but one of the things that people hadn't been working on is Thanksgiving," said Perone, who has been working closely with MLB.com reporter Jonathan Mayo to coordinate Minor League Baseball's Thanksgiving response. "We're just trying to find ways in which the baseball community can provide some uplift."
Realizing that "I'm lucky if I can cook one turkey on Thanksgiving," Perone has been reaching out to the local organizations best equipped to provide for the community. In Staten Island, the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation is facilitating three pre-Thanksgiving dinners on Wednesday at local catering halls that will feed more than 2,000 people. Mets icon John Franco, a New York native, will visit each site, and volunteers will be distributing paraphernalia donated by Minor League Baseball Charities (which also made a $5,000 cash donation to the Siller Foundation). Jane Rogers, president of the Staten Island Yankees, recently announced that her team would donate $10,000 to the Siller Foundation.
The Helping Hand effort will focus its energies in Coney Island on Thanksgiving Day, assisting Coney Island Recovers (an alliance of local business owners) in its efforts to feed as many people from the devastated community as possible. At MCU Park, the home of the Cyclones, 7,000 boxed Thanksgiving meals will be distributed throughout the day. In conjunction with these efforts, 50 buses are scheduled to depart from the parking lot for a Thanksgiving dinner at a local catering hall. This will feed an additional 5,000 people, 2,500 each at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. sittings.
The Lakewood BlueClaws, the Jersey Shore's only Minor League team, have gotten into the Thanksgiving spirit by donating to "Turkeys for New Jersey," a grassroots fundraising effort. When reached by telephone on Tuesday afternoon, general manager Geoff Brown was raving about the relief efforts with which his organization had been involved the day before. A total of 164 volunteers from the Phillies' Major League staff and affiliated clubs traveled to Lakewood, spending the day cleaning out houses. It was an effort that truly started at the top.
"We had [Phillies general manager] Ruben Amaro digging through the debris and taking ruined belongings out of people's homes, and [former general manager] Ed Wade was working out of a crawl space at a house in Belmar," Brown said.
Going forward, the BlueClaws have initiated a "Restore the Shore" campaign. Every Friday through Memorial Day, those involved wear Restore the Shore T-shirts and donate money to the ongoing cleanup efforts. Ten businesses already have joined the campaign and many more are expected to do so.
The cleanup will remain a balancing act, with immediate concerns such as Thanksgiving competing with long-term efforts to get the affected communities back to health.
"We're going to continue to work with the organizations that can best support these efforts," Perone said. "A lot of people here, their houses are ruined and they are going to be displaced for a long time. We have to keep finding ways to keep helping families in our baseball communities."