By Karen Frantz
In the days immediately following Hurricane Sandy, the YANA Community Center was transformed into a major relief hub for storm victims in the Rockaways. With the support of members of the Occupy Sandy movement, the facility became a place for the surrounding community to find hot meals, medical care and other aid.
Now the center, which stands at the corner of Rockaway Beach Boulevard and Beach 112th Street, has shifted from relief work back to its original mission: to help the economically marginalized succeed and to environmentally transform the Rockaways.
“It’s based on the concept of sustainability — physically, emotionally, in every sense of the word,” said Salvatore Lopizzo, YANA’s founder.
He said he strives for fostering such sustainability everywhere, whether it be in lifestyle, buildings or healthcare. He said the center also serves as a bulwark for those who may feel overwhelmed by life’s challenges, a mission exemplified in the facility’s name, shorthand for “you are never alone.”
“Most people feel when they’re up against something, they can’t overcome it, so we’re trying to be there for them,” Lopizzo said.
The center is funded through donations and grants, the bulk of which come from Occupy Sandy, the grassroots protest movement’s disaster relief network. But YANA has other benefactors such as the Queens Public Library and Capital One Bank.
Lopizzo said YANA offers a range of services, including signing people up for Medicaid, health insurance and food stamps and helping workers get licensed in their fields so they may start their own businesses.
He also places a heavy emphasis on going green, saying the center is dedicated to getting people certified to do home audits to ensure energy efficiency and that he has plans to put solar panels on YANA’s roof.
“We’re going totally off the grid,” he said.
The facility today stands in stark contrast to its condition in the early days of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated YANA just two weeks after it opened. The entire building had to be gutted, with nearly everything replaced except for the ceiling.
Lopizzo said the first few days after the storm were dark times. When asked what went through his head after the hurricane, tears in his eyes belied his humorous tone when he responded, “Suicide, alcohol.”
But then he got a call from Occupy Sandy, which was looking for a community center to use as an aid center in the Rockaways and asked if the group could set up at YANA.
“And the rest is history,” Lopizzo said. “I really feel like Buddha sent them to me.”
As Occupy Sandy worked to get the neighborhood back on its feet after the storm, it also helped Lopizzo rebuild, and slowly YANA was able to transition back to being a community center, fully shifting away from storm relief to its original purpose about three months ago.
As a sort of testament to the new era, 12 young men gathered at YANA Sunday for the first class of a program that will equip them with some of the tools to make their dream careers a reality.
The students’ teacher, Morris J. Kennedy, said that by the end of the program, the youths, who come from Martin De Porres High School and St. John’s Residence for Boys, will have developed a portfolio of sorts that will include a résumé and a personal essay that could be turned into a cover letter. The Rockaway students will also fill out and mail an application for a driver’s license permit.
“They’re in a transition phase, they’re going from being children to being adults,” he said, saying the program helps them bridge that gap.
Justin Coulverson, who will be 18 in two weeks, said that during the first class he spoke about his desire to become a veterinarian.
And he seemed to appreciate YANA’s mission to be a supportive community.
“The fact that someone else is pushing me to achieve helps a lot,” he said.