Shelter from the storm

Thu, 2012-11-15 13:25 -- Heather McNeil

She explained to me that when she was born, in 1927, she “made history”.  “I was 3 months premature, and weighed less than 2 pounds,” she confided to me by the light coming out from between the locker room doors, illuminating the small area where her cot and belongings were.  “My parents were sure I would not survive, there was not the kind of hospital care for preemies then that there is now.”

Storm Sandy intensified outside and we could hear the howling winds as they passed over the roof of the high school.  The lights in the gym, temporary home for over 250 residents, had been dimmed and parents with children quietly reassured them that they were safe.  I was transfixed by the story of ‘Beverly’, an 85 yr. old resident who had come to the high school after a short visit to the clinic for breathing and ambulatory issues.

“My parents told me I was taken to a hospital on Coney Island, and had to stay there for 11 weeks until I gained weight and developed more fully,” she continued, eager to have an audience it seemed.

Inside the temporary shelter, much of life comes to a standstill and time loses its ability to define how we spend the day.  Some residents come with family members, or find a cot next to a neighbor and set up a de facto ‘block’, finding comfort in the proximity to familiar people in a wholly unfamiliar experience.  Some, like Beverly, are alone at this time of their life, and they reach out eagerly to engage workers, and seem to especially enjoy the school-aged volunteers.

In Old Saybrook, since 1997, the Developmental Assets model  has been taught, role-modeled, advertised and workshopped (!) extensively.  Many of the experiences and exchanges I witnessed at the shelter during 3 days of working there exemplified how the community has really integrated so much of this model in the way the community functions. The First Selectman’s office, where strategic decisions had to be made with the Police Chief about how to care for all residents, emergency and ambulance personnel who needed to plan for the most at-risk residents, the police force, responsible for directing the Emergency Management Effort, and the student youth, many of them children of the Emergency Management Team, all working together in an effort to provide safety, security and some creature comforts during a time when all were concerned that their homes and lives were at risk.

Beverly’s was one of many stories we listened to those 3 days.  Some of the teen-aged helpers played card games with the elderly residents, some colored with the children.  We made connections between people who had felt very isolated in their own homes, and plan to offer some intentional opportunities for intergenerational gatherings.  Perhaps without even being aware of it, our youth demonstrated that they have paid attention to their positive adult role models, that they care about their community, that they understand the value of community service, and they can appreciate that our elders have something to share with all of us. 


Heather McNeil is the director of Old Saybrook Youth & Family Services. She is a marriage and family therapist and a licensed alcohol and drug counselor. Heather works within the community and school systems to offer supportive resources to Old Saybrook residents and their families.