In the Staten Island hurricane recovery effort, one of the most unlikely volunteers has become one of the most valuable. NY1's Lindsey Christ filed the following report.
Most of the storm victims at an event in Staten Island who chose a new toy to replace the toys they lost didn't notice the woman who organized the donations was sitting right there, and she was unable to see their smiles.
Despite being almost completely blind, Marybeth Melendez has played a substantial role in the hurricane recovery effort.
It started when she volunteered to run the crisis intervention center at a Staten Island evacuation shelter. Melendez is still a student, studying clinical and mental health counseling at the College of Staten Island, but as the shelter lost power and flood survivors began to pour in, her role became critical.
"I concentrated on hearing the sounds of their voices," Melendez said. "I could smell the raw sewage on them. I could smell the seawater, the sweat. Some of them were bleeding. I had to fight my own fears because the wind was howling, the trees were falling in the background, we were plunged in darkness. But that was the one place that I knew I could function properly."
After the storm, Melendez set up one of the first stations distributing food and water.
"People were coming up to us, saying 'Are you in charge?'" she said.
With the help of friends, classmates and her seeing-eye dog, Trixie, she did sort of become in charge of an informal recovery network.
"People know me now," she said. "They know my name. I can walk to my house at any given day and trip over boxes of donations that people will kindly leave in front of my house, whether it's coats, clothes, shoes, toys, nonperishable foods."
Some of those toys were distributed to storm victims Friday at El Centro, a Port Richmond center for immigrant day laborers and their families.
"It filled up my house with water and everything mixed up," said one child.
"The toys and all that, they got all rusty," said a second child. "They couldn't work anymore. We had to throw them all out."
"It means a lot, because now they have toys to play," said a parent.
Melendez said not being able to see is not at all a barrier to being able to help.
"My vision is poor, but my heart is big," she said.