By Tammy Scileppi
Volunteering comes naturally to Marissa Bernowitz.
At 28, the mother of two has become a disaster relief volunteer coordinator, having served her Rockaway Beach community and beyond, during and after Superstorm Sandy. Even as repairs on her damaged home continue, neighbors know she is always there for them.
When Sandy hit in October 2012 and their home was swept away, Bernowitz and her sons, Pedro (aka Vegeta), now 10, and Gabriel, now 3, found themselves stranded and homeless. Then she lost her job.
Not letting fear stand in her way, Bernowitz started coordinating safety efforts for her neighbors, and then for the well-being of those who stayed behind. Families like her own had no power and no everyday essentials, so she started making calls and using social media to reach out to the outside world for assistance.
“We started the FREE Flea Market, with items ranging from perishable and non-perishable foods, clothing, household items and more for people in need. Slowly we phased out of immediate disaster relief to long-term help,” said Bernowitz, who volunteered at a few local distribution sites throughout the Rockaways until January 2013.
But she continued to stay involved in the community and advocate for those recovering and rebuilding, helping folks with FEMA paperwork, signing people up for community services, and serving voluntarily as the Head Elf Of Queens for the Secret Sandy Claus Project (which delivered toys and essentials to roughly 1,500 children across all Sandy-affected areas). This past holiday season, the project expanded to cover all children in need across NYC.
The family is currently living in a rental building in Rockaway Beach. And while working part-time at a local car service, Bernowitz is a full-time volunteer board member at We Care New York, Inc., where she is in charge of their relief effort in Queens and beyond.
“We have our annual Community Thanksgiving Dinner, partnership with SSCP and the Marines Toys For Tots for the winter holidays; free prom boutiques; computer tech classes; suicide prevention with SISFI (Suicide Intervention Services Foundation); clothing/coat distributions; and our newest project, F.I.T.S — Fun In The Sun,” she said. “This will be our second summer and we hope to keep growing.”
Born in Brooklyn, Bernowitz moved to Queens with her family at the age of 5. She was in foster care, on and off, from the age of 10. As a result, she learned how to make lemonade from lemons early on.
“My sons are my world and keep me going every day,” she says. “And knowing what it is to be without – and being able to help others. I believe that saying: ‘I don’t give because I have, I give because I know what it is not to have.’
“Another great quote I live by: “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”