More than 20 travel-industry volunteers were bent over in the hot sun, shovels in hand, painstakingly clearing away nearly three feet of sand covering the roads at Fort Tilden in Queens, N.Y. Thirty more volunteers painted over graffiti on the walls of the old military batteries at the former U.S. Army installation, cleaning out leaves and debris that had settled inside. Down on the beach, another group installed a fence along the dunes, replacing what Hurricane Sandy had torn down seven months earlier.
This wasn’t the first time Tourism Cares, an organization dedicated to supporting the travel industry through grants and service projects, had helped rebuild New York City. Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the group hosted its first-ever volunteer project, on the largely abandoned south side of Ellis Island. “It’d been closed since 1954,” said Bruce Beckham, who was the executive director of Tourism Cares for nearly 13 years before retiring this past July. “There were weeds everywhere, fences were torn down, bricks strewn all over the place. An American icon was becoming an eyesore.” More than 300 volunteers helped rehabilitate a piece of Ellis Island.
Ten years later, Tourism Cares teamed up with NYC & Company to return to New York, commemorating a decade of giving back. On May 31, 600 hospitality professionals from 30 states and three countries — and from Convene, too — gathered at the New York Aquarium on Coney Island, then spread out to several different work sites throughout the city. “We were all devastated in some way by Sandy,” said Queens native Lorraine Sileo, senior vice president for PhoCusWright Inc., who was volunteering that day. “Whether it impacted us directly or not, it impacted someone we know and love, and this is our way of giving back. We can just do a little bit as one person, but collectively as a group, we really can accomplish a lot in one day.”
“A lot” is an understatement. On Coney Island, volunteers painted 200 lampposts along the boardwalk, in addition to painting murals, fences, and playground equipment. Some people restored sections of the New York Aquarium. Others planted 140 plants at playgrounds in Brooklyn. At Fort Tilden, volunteers built more than 1,000 feet of dune fencing and removed 4,500 cubic feet of sand from the roads. The National Park Service originally had planned to keep its area beaches closed all summer, but at press time was hoping to open the Fort Tilden beach earlier. In total, Tourism Cares ended up donating more than $60,000 in labor to the city.
While a lot was accomplished in one day, there’s still a long way to go before those areas fully recover from Sandy. Beckham hopes that the project will encourage more locals to step in and lend a hand, which is what he’s witnessed in the past. “Tourism Cares is not an organization that’s going to come in and redo something,” Beckham said. “What we do is we light the fuse. We’re the spark.”