Superstorm Sandy left federal, state and county agencies scrambling to rebuild the City of Long Beach and other hard-hit areas, but the human need is dire and immediate. Too many people were left with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Johanna Sofield and her husband Greg are well-known in the Long Beach community. Greg’s a third-generation resident and Johanna, originally from Hewlett, has lived in Long Beach since she was 19 years old.
Johanna describes herself as a “beach girl,” and she is, with long blond hair, ocean blue eyes and a natural way about her. When we met recently at the Laurel Luncheonette on West Park Avenue, it was packed with locals and construction workers. As Johanna made her way through the crowd, she was greeted by almost everyone there. “I love this community,” she says.
More than a decade ago the Sofields began hosting a Christmas party in their home and invited friends, family and the community asking them to bring toys and they would distribute them to needy children in the Long Beach school district.
In just a few years, the event outgrew the Sofield’s living room and was moved to the Bridgeview Yacht Club, where it evolved into an annual fundraiser that is attended by hundreds.
Since 2003, when the Sofields founded the non-profit organization known as The Long Beach Christmas Angel, Inc., they’ve raised more than $450,000 to help local working families facing a hardship or a financial crisis.
Christmas Angel has provided assistance for rent, tuition, clothing, medical supplies such as eyeglasses and even funerals. For many of the recipients, the financial gift from Christmas Angel can be life changing.
“The first family we assisted was a single mother,” Johanna says. “We paid her college tuition so she could get a good job and support her kids.”
Helping people get an education has always been one of their top goals. Last year Christmas Angel awarded $6,000 in scholarships to local students.
“Kids want to go to college and we want them to stay in school,” she says.
Johanna has seen firsthand how a seemingly small gift can make a tremendous difference in someone’s life. But she keeps the details to herself. Christmas Angel has always maintained a strict policy about protecting the identities of their recipients.
Recently, Christmas Angel gave a $500 donation to a local woman to pay for private driving lessons which allowed her to get a better paying job with the City of Long Beach.
Another resident won a housing lottery, but because of out-of-pocket payments for his cancer treatments he used up his savings and didn’t have the required down payment.
“We helped get the criteria waived, which allowed him to be gifted for the down payment,” Johanna says. “I had Thanksgiving at his house that year. Without Christmas Angel’s help, he would have lost the house and a once-in -a-lifetime opportunity.”
All of these donations were given without fanfare. Johanna preferred to keep a low profile.
“We had been successfully flying under the radar,” she says.
And then came Sandy.
“This is just so big,” Johanna says sadly. “Yesterday I distributed $5,000; usually it’s $70,000 for the entire year.”
Rebuilding the lives of those devastated by the superstorm is her top priority now.
She considers herself lucky that no one in her family was injured, but they were scattered in different places after the storm.
“My kids went to Virginia, my dog went to Brooklyn and my husband to Jersey,” she says. “I couldn’t sleep so I would get up in the middle of the night and wait on line for gas to bring back to the people here.”
When her four children returned to Long Beach, they brought back $18,000 in donated goods and $8,000 in cash for the community that was raised in Virginia.
How much Long Beach lost is more evident every day. Housing will be an on-going struggle for the foreseeable future.
Sandy put everybody on a level playing field.
“You have the well-off living side by side with people who struggle,” she says.
“There is little affordable housing in Long Beach,” Johanna says. For those who can’t afford the cost of moving to another apartment, Christmas Angel assists by paying the security deposit and the first month’s rent, if needed.
“We look for what they need and how we can help them,” she says. “Veterans go right to the top of our list.”
Johanna works closely with social workers in the school district who help identify those who can use assistance.
Recently Johanna met with an elementary school psychologist who had applications for Christmas Angel to fulfill. Most requests are paid by check through the charity. The psychologist gave Johanna a $434 LIPA bill that a struggling single mother had to pay before the utility would turn her electricity back on. Johanna put the LIPA bill on the top of her pile and mailed the check later that day.
Christmas Angel gave a $1,000 Visa gift card to a school staff member who lost everything in the storm. A resident who was left with just an ill-fitting housecoat received a $500 gift card for new clothing. Thanks to Christmas Angel’s generosity, a Sleepy’s truck just delivered 10 new mattresses to local residents, seven of the new beds were for children.
Johanna didn’t mention her own circumstances until asked.
“My house is gutted, and it will be six months to get back in,” she says. “Our rental house will be ready in a month, so for now I’m staying at a friend’s house.”
“This is a beach community with three and four generations all living here,” Johanna explains. “Everybody got hit.”
Meanwhile Johanna is helping those who have fallen to get back up on their feet and rebuild their dream of living in the City by the Sea.