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Carnival brings smiles during Hurricane Sandy aftermath

Tod Seelie

Families enjoy themselves at the Rockaway Kids Carnival. "It was really touching," says an organizer.

For nearly four hours on Saturday, the grim business of recovering from Hurricane Sandy on Long Island was overshadowed by the beaming grins of hundreds of children enjoying a free carnival.

The Rockaway Kids Carnival in Rockaway Beach gave children and their families an opportunity to smile amidst a difficult time in an area that is still without power since the storm. Organizer Mark Winkel and partners Damon Worden and Molly Levine advertised the carnival at local shelters and with flyers and even a marching band. Winkel estimated the crowd at about 600, including volunteers, for the event that went from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. and featured face painting, puppet shows, aerial performers, toys and bouncy castles in a 40,000-square foot outdoor area.

“We have been out there for the past two weeks, and aside from the obvious destruction, we were seeing these despondent kids walking around,’’ Winkel told TODAY.com. “They lost everything – their homes, their toys, and even some friends and family. They’re depressed and bored. Seeing these kids at the carnival with the giant smiles on their faces and laughing, some for the first time in several weeks, it was really touching. There were a couple moments where I almost lost it.’’

There were 200 custom-printed T-shirts with the carnival logo on them that were gone by the end of the event. Hundreds of children were also able to choose a free costume to wear during the carnival courtesy of New York City-based Kostume Kult.  Hungry March Band, a 15-piece activist band, went around local neighborhoods playing music and leading residents to the carnival.

Not only was it a chance for children to have fun, it brought together adults to commiserate after so much hardship.

Tod Seelie

High spirits: A woman on stilts performs for children at the Rockaway Kids Carnival.

“There were a lot of people where it seemed like it was the first moment they were relaxing,’’ said photographer Tod Seelie. “There were kids laughing, running around and playing, and there were people still covered in grime and drywall from working on their homes who were just talking. There hasn’t been a place to go and socialize with each other, so I think it served that purpose as well.”

Some local residents initially expressed skepticism about having a carnival so soon after the storm’s devastation.

“We met with a couple people that showed resistance, including a school principal who was very resistant to the idea and didn’t understand why we would be celebrating after a tragedy,’’ Winkel said. “I tried to tell her it’s more about giving the kids something to look forward to and a beautiful thing to remember amidst tragedy.

“Their entire existence has been no electricity, being cold, and wearing clothes that don’t belong to them. It’s really rough for them. They needed a day to be children. We got reports from some of our people going around the local neighborhoods to tell everyone about the event that said parents initially scowled at them, but then they saw their kids’ faces light up for the first time in a month and they decided to come down.”

Winkel hopes to put on more carnivals in the area for children in the coming months.

“I am hoping for support from government as well as hopefully corporate support,’’ he said. “We would like to go to all of the areas that were hardest hit.’’

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