The day after Superstorm Sandy swept through Misquamicut, annihilating the dunes and severely damaging or destroying many businesses and homes, the Greater Westerly-Pawcatuck Area of Commerce sprang into action. There were six short months before the beginning of the tourist season. Knowing that time was critical, and that businesses would be rebuilding under challenging winter conditions, Executive Director Lisa Konicki set a fundraising goal of $400,000 by May 31 to assist those hurt by the storm. Anticipating the curiosity factor, the Chamber set up a T-shirt sales and donation table right at the beach, so those coming down to see the damage would have an immediate and direct way to help the recovery.
Donations of every size and scope — from banks to bake sales — poured in. By May 30, $412,000 had been raised; the money assisted 25 businesses with grants ranging from $1,500 to $38,000.
How did they do it?
With an army of volunteers. With the trust and overwhelming support of the community. And with the talents and creative vision of some truly incredible women. It is not possible in these pages to name everyone and describe their contributions. But we'll talk about some, and share the reflections they offered:
Barbara Cardiff, the owner of The Villa Bed & Breakfast on Shore Road in Westerly was at the forefront of raising awareness and keeping Misqaumicut in the public eye. As a member of the Westerly Economic Development Commission, she helped to coordinate an ecumenical "Bless Our Beach" ceremony shortly after the storm, and chaired the "Hands Along the Sands" celebration of the beach's recovery. She also served on the committee for the beach's first hosting of BoldRDash — a 5K military-style obstacle course race.
Joyce Resnikoff, the owner of Olde Mistick Village, held a fundraising cocktail reception in February at Go Fish to share the progress being made in Misquamicut and outline the work ahead. Organizers thought it had the potential to raise about $10,000. Astonishingly, guests donated $57,000 in the first 7 minutes, and another $7,500 came in over the ensuing months as a result of the party. "Joyce is an amazing woman," Konicki said.
Sherry A. Quinlan of Stonington walked into the chamber offices a week after the storm and seemingly never left.
She donated more than 150 hours of her time helping with storm-related activities — everything from answering phones and issuing thousands of resident passes, to cold-calling businesses for donations of supplies or auction items.
"Our office has essentially taken on two roles these past 6 months — run a Chamber, and run this multi-faceted campaign. Sherry is one of the reasons we were able to do all we have done," Konicki said.
For her efforts, Quinlan was honored with the Chamber's Key Award at its Annual Dinner on June 25.
And speaking of the Chamber, Konicki emphasized that her own staff — events manager Molly Evak, membership services administrator Kirsten Petrizzo, and administrative assistant Donna Greene — have worked "like dogs from day one after the storm," handling the myriad behind-the-scenes tasks that go hand-in-hand with an effort of this size. The chamber's board of directors president, Deb Turrisi, also donated critical man hours to help them manage the extra workload, Konicki said.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS
Volunteers share their experiences:
It was just a couple of years ago that the North End of Westerly was impacted by historic flooding The Jonnycake Center was directly affected — under 5 feet of water and without power/communications for more than a week. We relied on the help and generosity of others to get back on our feet. ... We recognize the economic force that the beach is for our community. I'm in awe when I look at all the progress the beach has made in really a very short amount of time.
— Liz Pasqualini, director, Jonnycake Center of Westerly, which provided food, clothing and other material assistance to families whose homes were damaged. The center also channeled two corporate donations into providing work gear — gloves, boots and bags to volunteers on the ground.
I saw a call for volunteers on the Channel 12 news program so I signed up to be a volunteer. When I got there that first weekend, they were overwhelmed with the number of people that showed up to help: they needed help getting them registered, getting people down to the work site (at that time the area was closed off) and coordinating with the people at that site. I offered to help and that turned into a position with Serve Rhode Island managing the volunteer response ...
Although I live about an hour away, I go to that area in the summer for the beach, the food and the great shops. If that had happened in my community, I would want to have people helping me get back on my feet....
— Cynthia Myers, who spearheaded the Serve Rhode Island project to clean up 100 tons of debris in the north shore of Winnapaug Pond. "Cyndi coordinated 1,200 volunteers." Konicki said. "Misquamicut would not have recovered without this organization and the incredible support they provided."
To go back and remember the day after, when I got out of the police cruiser and walked down there. I couldn't believe the devastation. "No hurricane does this," I thought. I thought it had to have been an earthquake or a war zone. ... This pulled the people in town together whether they lived down there or not.
I love living here and have been going to the beaches here all my life. In one instance, a man bought a [Bring Back the Beach] shirt and gave me a check for $500. Another gave $1,000. ... It was memories that mattered to these people. They shared stories of coming here summer after summer, to cottages that belonged to their parents or grandparents. Many come from New York, Massachusetts and a lot from Connecticut. It was breathtaking to watch. You wanted to cry.
— Diana Serra, Westerly Town Council president, and the owner and director of Westerly Preschool. Immediately after the storm, she worked the command station at the police station. Once public safety and emergency issues were resolved, she shifted her efforts to fundraising. "She personally volunteered many, many days at the Chamber trailer that we set up on the town beach lot, selling T-shirts, talking with the public, collecting donations," Konicki said.
I don't like destruction. I don't like seeing people struggle. These were customers of mine. ... Almost every restaurant in Westerly is a Jonathan Edwards customer...
Being involved in small business, I understand what it takes to keep afloat. I could identify with them. I took the things I know in life, art, music and the restaurant industry, and put these things together to raise money. Almost every restaurant in Westerly is a Jonathan Edwards customer. I emailed friends and said, "this is what I'm thinking of doing." I collected donations of art, inspired by the beach, from friends in New York Providence, Connecticut. I wanted it to be approachable (affordable), and each piece was available for purchase from $20-400. Every little bit counts. This humanized it.
I created a committee of about 20 people. I had the idea that people could buy Christmas presents for people and the money could go to the Chamber foundation. Business owners and the Chamber had a real presence. We created Misquamicut Beach Benefit t-shirts. 250 submissions came in of artwork, paintings, sculpture, jewelry, mobile art. Any donation could get you in the door for the Dec. 9 benefit at The Twisted Vine, Malted Barley and Perks & Corks. People could view art or buy art. Auction items were donated, bands contacted us saying they wanted to help and there were three bands playing at each location. Each place gave 50 percent of their proceeds to the Chamber for that day. We raised $27,000 in about 3 ½ weeks. 1500 people came through the doors. I didn't expect to see this. It was pretty electric. ... I was really overwhelmed by the community. This would never have happened anywhere else. It was really, really, really overwhelming to see how the community came together.
— Susan Denice, sales and distribution for Jonathan Edwards Winery in North Stonington. The Dec. 9 Bring Back the Beach fundraiser she coordinated at The Twisted Vine, Malted Barley and Perks & Corks in downtown Westerly drew 1500 people. "She led this initiative on her own," Konicki said. "She was a rock star getting this event done."
Tears came to my eyes when I heard [about the hurricane damage]. ... Our business is where it is today because of community support over the past two years. It's a circular relationship. ...This is our town. We wanted to do something to contribute to the fundraising efforts, something unique to us. So we brewed a specialty beer, Bring Back the Beach blonde ale. Our distributor is a phenomenal community supporter. McLaughlin & Moran out of Cranston is family- owned from way back. They let us utilize their sales team to help get the word out around here. All of the beer was pre-sold through this effort. Every penny ($5,000) was donated to the Chamber fund.
It's where we are and who we are. We had to help our friends and neighbors in any way possible. Our friends and neighbors lost homes and businesses. We had this unique opportunity to do something no one else could do. We have a strong connection to our community. Our business is where it is today because of community support over the past two years. It's a circular relationship. It gave us a great feeling to be a part of that effort.
I would never wish another event like this on anyone. To stop and look back at the positive, we had a campaign that showed how well we worked together as a team. We pulled together as a community in the face of such an event. People were going up to shovel sand and do whatever they could. It was a beautiful thing to see unfold.
And to create the beer so that 100 percent of the proceeds were donated was amazingly simple because of the generosity of the suppliers. It continues to be a powerful experience of creating awareness. The beer isn't available now but the conversation continues. People stop and ask what they can do to help.
— Jennifer Brinton, co-owner with her husband Alan of Grey Sail Brewing on Canal Street in Westerly. She donated an unlimited supply of Bring Back the Beach ale to the Black & White Masquerade fundraising event at the Ocean House (which raised $102,000) and served on its planning committee. Creating the special brew was "super clever and incredibly generous," Konicki said.
Cooking is my passion, so I offered to coordinate that effort [providing food for 250-300 weekend volunteers]. For liability reasons I wasn't able to cook the food myself so with other volunteers we made calls to area stores and restaurants and I posted a call for help on Facebook. Most were local donations but we received some monetary donations for food from Michigan and Pennsylvania. The furthest away was from a woman in Miami, Florida who owned a cupcake shop. She felt empathetic because of all the storms they have down there and she sent cookies and cupcakes. It's been ongoing since the first week of November with a winter break and we wrapped up in time for Springfest on May 10.
... A lot of what I do is because I want Shane to be proud of me and the life I lead. (Shane is Dillingham's son. He died in 2004 at age 23.) I want him to be proud of his mom. We were all about food. I'm a self-taught chef. ... I didn't really feel like I belonged here (in Westerly). Getting involved with this effort gave me an opportunity to get involved with the community and make a contribution. It was a way for me to help out. Just seeing the devastation of it all was difficult. I live one mile from the beach.
Now I have seven recipes being featured on the menu at Caswell Cooke's restaurant Seafood Haven at Misquamicut Beach. I'm actually doing the cooking. Because of my volunteer work I am able to do this. I got a dream fulfilled, and was able to help people at the same time.
— Corinne Dillingham moved to Westerly in 1996 from Pennsylvania where she spent the first 40 years of her life. She personally cooked for the volunteers and headlining performers at the 2013 Misquamicut Springfest, and you can sample seven of her recipes — like Cheesy Fried Pickles — at The Seafood Haven on Atlantic Avenue in Misquamicut.
Patricia Chaffee and Faye Parenteau contributed to this story.