Red Hook is remote by New York standards, a low-lying neighborhood with New York Harbor lapping up against its southern edge and the Statue of Liberty standing watch nearby. It’s severed from the rest of south Brooklyn by the noisy Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE). It’s also detached from the subway system, with the closest train stopping a long walk away on the other side of the BQE.

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy flooded Red Hook streets with several feet of water and cut off public transportation. When the hurricane knocked out power, Frances Medina (’11) found herself on the front lines of the recovery.

Medina, who grew up in Red Hook, had been helping with event planning for the nonprofit Red Hook Initiative (RHI) before Sandy hit, so she asked how she could help with the community center’s storm response. She posted updates about what Red Hook needed to RHI’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, growing their Twitter following from 200 to about 3,000 and their Facebook likes from 300 to about 2,000 as volunteers and offers of supplies poured in.

At first, she did all this from her Bronx apartment, but once the subways started running again, she was able to get to Red Hook in person. Then Medina began working 16-hour days to help residents get food, flashlights, cleaning supplies, medicine, and blankets as they waited for power to return.

“I was able to do it because of my experience coordinating events and managing details at Michigan,” says 24-year-old Medina. “I felt comfortable using these skills – project management, social media, events – because I’d done it all before.”

Before the Storm

Medina grew up in Red Hook Houses, a cluster of brick high-rises that are the largest public housing development in Brooklyn. Her sister began spending time at the nearby Red Hook Initiative, which aspires to empower young people to help them overcome societal challenges to pursue their dreams. Medina followed, doing her homework at the low-slung building and using their Internet service to research colleges.

When she got accepted to U-M and had no idea how she would pay for college, RHI was one of many organizations that helped her cobble together the money she needed.

Medina hustled her way through school doing numerous part-time jobs, including ones at the Ann Arbor Art Center and Hillel Center and as a UROP research assistant, gaining new skills along the way. Her constant scouting for scholarships got her help from the Center for the Education for Women and through LSA financial aid, which reinforced her resourcefulness.

“There was no way I could do it on my own,” Medina says with intense gratitude for those who helped.

As a first-year student, Medina spent spring break in New Orleans, volunteering to help with reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina, and found the experience so rewarding she went back to help for the summer.

After graduating from LSA, Medina worked and volunteered part-time for a series of NYC event agencies, including the Red Hook Initiative where she organized the Taste of Red Hook event.

Her project for RHI was winding down just as Hurricane Sandy was bearing down on the East Coast, and she didn’t know what she was going to do next.

Sandy helped answer that question.

“During that chaotic time, Frances proved that she was not only an essential team member around event planning, but could problem solve in high stress situations,” says Jill Eisenhard, Red Hook Initiative’s executive director. “The amount that she was handling and the ease with which she did it made it impossible to imagine life at RHI without her.”

Every Step Counts

Eisenhard encouraged Medina to apply for a program called the Kilimanjaro Initiative, a youth leadership program that sends young people from the United States and Kenya to climb the tallest peak in Africa.

Medina was accepted and trained with Kilimanjaro Initiative for two weeks, running five miles at a time, doing rock climbing, and navigating with a compass. It takes skills, cooperation, and patience to reach the more than 19,000-foot mountain’s rocky, snowy peak.

Medina, center, on the way up Mount Kilimanjaro with two fellow hikers.
Photo courtesy of Frances Medina.

“The whole point of the climb is that you have to take it slowly,” Medina said, sharing the Swahili phrase for “slowly,” “pole pole,” which is something of a climbing mantra. She saw a corpse on the mountain, someone who had tried the climb and failed. Hurrying can lead to mistakes, which can lead to failure or death. “Every single step counts.”

Touring the slums of Kenya before and after the climb highlighted all the resources she had back in the states, even having grown up poor by U.S. standards. In the wake of Sandy, when she’d spent night and day focused on what Red Hook had lost, Medina realized they still had so much more than many poor Kenyans.

Medina wants to make sure young people take advantage of the resources in their communities to give themselves the best opportunities for success.

“I came back a totally different person,” Medina says. “I came back with clarity and ready to work.”