When Superstorm Sandy hits the East Coast last October, Donna Graziano escapes all harm. Her Brooklyn home sustains no damage, she doesn’t lose power and her family stays safe. On television, however, she sees the horrible destruction throughout the tri-state area.
On one news segment in particular, she sees a woman from Staten Island weeping and pleading for help. Donna recognizes the look of fear and despair on her face. Growing up, Donna gets passed from relative to group home to foster home, enduring unimaginable abuse and hardships. Instinctively, she knows how the people of Staten Island feel, and she determines to do something about it.
She and six friends from Hallowed Sons, a neighborhood motorcycle club, head to Staten Island the following day with a truck and a car full of food and supplies donated by friends. As they drive around, they find New Dorp Beach, an area that seems hardest hit, yet hasn’t gotten any help. They are literally the first group to arrive in a neighborhood that has been completely destroyed. The streets are flooded while the residents have no running water. Some homes have totally collapsed while others are damaged beyond repair.
Immediately, the group stops and sets up a barbecue in a nearby park. Donna simply wants to feed people a hot meal, to hug them and let them know that they're not alone in the face of this disaster.
The residents need so much help that she goes back the next day -- and the next, and the next, for months on end. She turns that initial act of kindness into the Cedar Grove Community Hub, a tent where donations can be delivered and people can gather to eat and take a break from the never-ending recovery efforts.
William Majkiewicz remembers seeing Donna during his 12-hour night shifts with the Department of Sanitation. He and his crew work from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. for 52 straight days after the storm. It is part of the 24-hour service ordered by the Office of Emergency Management to pick up debris in his district. “She was feeding families that had absolutely nothing left and nowhere to go,” he says, remembering her generosity. “She always fed us, too, and said if we knew anyone who needed help, to tell them to come down.”
As time goes on, others take notice of Donna and gravitate toward her force of character. She’s a small woman, only 4’ 11” tall, but exudes a genuine, forthright personality that can tackle any issue, no matter how formidable. In May, the New York State Assembly recognizes her for her recovery efforts and Project Hospitality honors her with its Humanitarian Award.
In her car, on her way to the awards luncheon, she receives word that one of her young volunteers has passed away from an untreated medical condition. Distraught at this senseless loss, she considers skipping the luncheon. Another community volunteer convinces her to attend, to honor the good work that has been done. Fifteen minutes after she arrives, however, she gets another call that the city has ordered the Cedar Grove community tent dismantled. She leaves the luncheon without receiving her award and heads straight for the hub. After changing out of her dress and heels in a port-o-potty, she joins her volunteers to move their belongings.
Since then, she operates largely out of her truck, as rebuilding efforts enter the plasterboard phase. In time, she hopes to move to Cedar Grove Avenue, where the community hub can have a permanent home. Meanwhile, when she sees a need, she asks for help on her Facebook page, and someone inevitably responds with a generous offer. Recently, during a heat wave, an elderly resident desperately needs an air conditioner. Within a couple of days of Donna posting a Facebook message, a unit is donated and installed.
William doesn’t see Donna anymore, since his usual route doesn’t cover Cedar Grove Avenue. Yet he remembers her vividly when his fiancée, Jennifer Russo, asks him about her. Jennifer manages the Brighton Collectibles in the Staten Island Mall. When Donna visits the store during its grand opening month in July, she mentions her work to Jennifer. Coincidentally, Brighton is holding a Handbag Trade-in event, when customers can exchange a gently used handbag for savings on the purchase of a new one. Brighton then donates the used bags to a local charity. It happens that Jennifer is in the process of selecting a charity when she meets Donna and decides to benefit Cedar Grove with the event.
Grateful for all the attention, Donna hopes she can keep people focused on the rebuilding that still needs to be done. She feels the spotlight should be on the New Dorp residents, not on her. “I’m just a small girl in a big world,” she says, “trying to make a difference.”