Selfless brigade of unsung heroes: A spotlight on the borough’s tradition of volunteerism

By Tracey Porpora Staten Island Advance

You’ll find them manning soup kitchens in the basement of churches on their day off from work, rebuilding homes devastated by Hurricane Sandy after clocking an eight-hour day in the office, filing paperwork for not-for-profits after they drop their kids off at school, or staffing a hospital gift shop after retirement.

While most of us are consumed with finding enough hours in the day to get all of our work, family and social responsibilities done, there is a quiet army of Islanders who not only find the time to help others, but make it their priority.

“I truly believe some people are just wired a certain way. People are born as volunteers. It’s like an alarm that goes off that makes people answer the call to assist others in need,” said Mike “Loco” Hoffman, who is founder of Boots on the Ground, and co-founder of Yellow Boots, both of which formed in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

After the worst storm to ever hit New York City, thousands of Staten Islanders volunteered to help those who lost loved ones, their homes and — in many cases — everything.

Now, eight months later, there still are countless individuals, from teenagers to senior citizens — many of whom have never volunteered before — making time to assist those in need with everything from providing hot meals to rebuilding homes.

“Because of our profound suffering after Hurricane Sandy, we tapped into a strength in the community that we didn’t know we had. Since the storm, we have had thousands and thousands of Staten Island volunteers to help (Sandy victims),” said Rev. Terry Troia, founder and executive director of Project Hospitality. Rev. Troia heads up the Interfaith Long-Term Disaster Recovery Organization, which is comprised of representatives from various Sandy grassroots volunteer groups.


While the spotlight has been shone on the volunteers who have taken the lead in the aftermath of Sandy, volunteerism has always been prevalent on Staten Island.

“If you send the word out on Staten Island that something is needed, all of a sudden people respond. It just happens here,” said Madeline Bergin, a volunteer with Where to Turn, a not-for-profit group launched after 9/11.

Perhaps volunteerism came most noticeably to the forefront in the days, months and years after September 11, 2001.

Borough residents joined together and came to the aid of their fellow Islanders by volunteering at the World Trade Center site, bringing food to victims’ families and offering support — from manual, to monetary to emotional — to the families and friends effected [sic] by the terrorist act on that infamous morning.

Leading not-for-profit groups in the borough, many of which were created through volunteer efforts responding to recent tragedies or natural disasters, have now become the “go-to” organizations for those who want to volunteer.


Stephen Siller, father of five and the youngest of seven siblings, was one of the 343 members of the New York City Fire Department who lost his life on 9/11. His siblings formed a foundation that managed to accomplish what initially was thought of as impossible: Creating a race that would retrace the last steps of Siller, who ran through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, gear strapped on his back, as he responded to the scene at the World Trade Center on his day off. Stephen died when the towers fell.

The Siller siblings didn’t know their grassroots foundation would one day spark races and volunteer missions across the country and abroad, including annual runs in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“We could not have done this or become what we have become today without our volunteers,” said Frank Siller, chairman of the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation.

“I go all across America now, and there is no better community than Staten Island anywhere in the county when it comes to volunteering,” he continued. “On a day-to-day basis I see hundreds of people coming (into the Siller Foundation) giving their time and energy. It is so uplifting,” added Siller, who noted that the organization attracts 2,500 new volunteers annually.

Since Sandy hit, Siller said more than 10,000 volunteers have come through the organization’s doors, leading to his group’s formation of a Sandy relief center for hurricane victims.

Additionally, the Siller Foundation’s “Building for America’s Bravest” program recruits volunteers across the country to build houses for veterans.


Another organization born after 9/11 is Where to Turn.

“We became a resource for any 9/11 victim, sharing with them good information and helping them through the bureaucratic maze that was created after 9/11,” said Dennis McKeon, founder of Where to Turn, which started out as a group of volunteers affiliated with St. Clare’s R.C. Parish in Great Kills to help parishioners who lost a loved one.

Today the group draws at least 1,000 volunteers per year to do everything from shoveling snow for senior citizens to assisting victims of natural disasters, like the recent earthquake in Haiti.

“Whenever there is a disaster or need, Staten Island is unlike any other place in the country,” McKeon said. “The response is always incredible. People here are always asking what they need to do.”


In much the same way Where to Turn and the Siller Foundation were formed after 9/11, several organizations started by volunteers in the aftermath of Sandy pledge to have a lasting presence.

Of grassroots groups like Guyon Rescue, the Midland Avenue Neighborhood Relief, Yellow Team, Boots on the Ground and Yellow Boots that formed to help Sandy victims, Rev. Troia observed, “These people are salt of the earth.”

Many of these groups are working to form not-for-profits that can assist in future emergency situations. Some of their volunteers have already looked beyond Staten Island, making their way to Moore County, Okla., in May to assist the thousands of people there who lost their homes to a monstrous tornado.

The first of these groups to obtain its not-for-profit status is Yellow Boots Disaster Preparedness and Recovery.

“We want to be able to educate others, and put teams on the ground to handle supplies, teach safety procedures, and organize volunteers,” said Hoffman, one of many continuing the longstanding tradition of volunteerism in our borough.

Before September 11, before Sandy, Staten Islanders in need and the organizations that help them have been supported by a steady flow of good Samaritans. Now that flow has been transformed into a mighty river.

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