By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Sandy Irrera’s house is usually filled with gift baskets during the Christmas holiday season. But they’re not baskets filled with gifts for her husband Tommy or their daughters Nanci or Tiffany. The baskets are part of Irrera’s work to raise funds for Ronald McDonald House, a charity that provides lodging in New York for children undergoing cancer treatments.
Irrera organizes the annual “Bingo for Baskets” fundraiser for the cancer charity. She became involved in the Ronald McDonald House through her membership in the Mapleton Kiwanis Club. “That’s where I learned about Ronald McDonald House. The club used to go twice a year and I said to the president, ‘Why not go more often?’ He told me I was right. Now we go once every two months,” she said.
Irrera epitomizes the spirit of volunteerism that is found in communities all over Brooklyn. Hundreds of charitable organizations in the borough would not be able to do what they do without the help and support of a group of largely unsung heroes working behind the scenes for no pay.
Ronald McDonald House isn’t the only cancer charity she has helped over the past several years.
Irrera, a Dyker Heights resident, has also led a team of participants in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, an annual event that takes place at the Fort Hamilton High School Athletic Field in Bay Ridge. Irrera’s team, called “Santa’s Helpers,” has raised an impressive $70,000 over the past several years. Her co-captains are Millie Rivera and Danielle Guillen.
“I was just looking for another way to help people,” Irrera said, explaining her involvement with the American Cancer Society.
As if that isn’t enough, Irrera also serves as a volunteer driver for a cancer patient, transporting the woman back and forth from home to her chemotherapy sessions. She also sits in on the sessions with the woman. “I take her every Wednesday. I make sure everyone knows not to disturb me on that day. Wednesdays are her day,” Irrera said.
“The rewards you get from doing something nice for someone are worth more than money,” Irrera said. “My mother told me that. She used to help everybody on my block when I was a kid. She was my inspiration.”
Irrera has been able to devote even more time to her charitable endeavors since her retirement two years ago. She worked for 25 years as a care counselor at the Guild for Exceptional Children, a non-profit agency in Bay Ridge that provides education, housing and job training to the developmentally disabled.
Two other organizations she devotes time to are No More Tears, a group which seeks to save dogs from puppy mills, and the Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
“I’m very good at fundraising. I can go into a store and ask for a donation of something to auction. I can convince people to come to a charity dinner. Everyone has something they’re good at. Everyone can contribute in some way,” Irrera said.
Irrera was born and raised in Dyker Heights. She attended P.S. 112, Edward B Shallow Junior High School and New Utrecht High School.
She got an early start in her volunteerism. “I was a candy striper at Victory Memorial Hospital when I was 14,” she said. Candy stripers were young volunteers, usually girls, who helped doctors and nurses in hospitals. The volunteers usually work uniforms that contains stripes like those on a candy cane, hence the name candy stripers.
“I did that for a lot of years. We did a little bit of everything. We wheeled patients around. We sat and talked to them. Hospitals have changed so much since I was a kid. Now you need a college degree to do what we did for nothing,” she said.
When her daughters were students at P.S. 204, she became a Class Mom, helping teachers out when it came time for class parties or other activities. “For some reason they always picked me, even though there were other parents too,” she recalled. Irrera was a PTA leader at P.S. 204 and at Shallow J.H.S. when her daughters were attending those schools.
Nanci Irrera is a special education teacher at P.S. 69 in Bay Ridge. Tiffany Irrera is a student at the University of Bridgeport, where she earned a softball scholarship. “My husband and I are so proud of them,” Irrera said. Tommy Irrera is an engineer.
Sandy Irrera has received some recognition for her volunteer work. She was named Kiwanian of the year last year. In 2007, state Sen. Marty Golden (R-Bay Ridge-southern Brooklyn) named her one of the Women of the Year in his senate district. She also received an award from the United Federation of Teachers for her work as a PTA leader at Shallow J.H.S. in 1999.
Irrera was quick to point out that volunteerism takes teamwork. “I couldn’t do what I do without help from places like P.S. 204, where they always donate supplies and things I need, or restaurants like La Bella Pannini, which lets me hold fundraisers in their place. And lots of local businesses make donations. My sisters, Vivian Monaco and Maria Dimino, are also wonderful about helping me out. A lot of times they sit in the car for me while I go into a store to get a donation,” she said.