By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Connor Kwiecien is eighth-grade class president at Hampstead Middle School. He also shares in family chores at home, cooking dinner a couple times a week and, much to Margaret Camuso's surprise, does windows like a pro.
“Look at these boys work,” said Camuso, who couldn't get over how Connor and his classmates, Nikhyl Sud and Richard Charity, made light work of cleaning her apartment yesterday. “I was expecting girls, but this is wonderful. So, you're gonna be good husbands, and send your wives to work. That's great.”
Camuso was one of several residents of Nutfield Heights treated to a Day of Cleaning, a community service project in which the Hampstead students teamed up with Community Caregivers of Greater Derry to dust, mop, scrub and polish anything in need of a little elbow grease.
Along with the 13 students who came to clean, there were many others who baked some goodies which while younger students from Nutfield Coop School made crafts, all delivered by the five clean-up crews.
“They're all leaders,” said Katie Wolff, a language arts teacher at the middle school, who was assigned to supervise the three boys who cleaned Camuso's apartment. “Connor is the class president. Nikyhl organized an international charity group, and Richard started and anti-bullying group.”
Knowing her team would need minimal supervision, Wolff volunteered to scrub the tub while the three boys tackled the rest of Camuso's efficiency apartment. Richard mopped the floors while Connor and Nikhyl removed the windows from their frames and hit them on both sides with Windex.
“I used to do it all,” said Camuso. “Now I have a hard time. My hip,” she said, lifting her metal cane off the chair, part explanation, part frustration. “I used to cook every day – I was the one who cooked all the big meals for my whole family. Now, I get Meals on Wheels two times a day. It makes me feel a little helpless, but my kids tell me to enjoy it – that I deserve it, after all these years.”
She watches in amazement as the boys carefully move her African violet and Peace lily, a blown glass rooster she brought with her from Italy, and an array of Mother's Day cards from the sill. She shakes her head in appreciation as Richard mops his way out of the kitchen and carefully moves her tote bag full of yarn and the making of a baby blanket for her soon-to-arrive great-grandbaby.
Camuso explains that she moved to Derry in October from her lifelong home in Medford.
“Actually, it was my mother's home. I lived there from the time I was 10, from the time I came to this country,” said Camuso, sparking Wolff's interest. Wolff asks Camuso to tell her story to the boys, who just learned about immigration during the early 20th century in school.
“Did you come through Ellis Island?” asks Connor, taking a break from window cleaning.
Camuso sits back in her easy chair, looking into the faces of the helpful young men who have formed a semi-circle around her as she condenses her life story into a five-minute history lesson.
“My father came before the rest of us, and I was supposed to come when I was 7, with my mother. She was pregnant at that time, and was afraid that if she didn't go then, she might not get another chance. But I had a bad toothache and they had to pull out my tooth, and it got infected, so I had to stay behind with my grandmother. It was three more years before I could come to America,” said Camuso.
She said she made the long journey across the Atlantic Ocean with friends the family, who all got sea sick.
“I was on my own – I was used to the sea. My grandfather would take me out on his fishing boat, so it was no problem for me,” Camuso said. “Can you imagine that now? A little 10 year old running around a ship on her way to America? When we got to Ellis Island, they wouldn't just let us off the boat. They had to examine us first, and you know how they did that? The same way your mother made you: Naked. How embarrassing that was for me. Nowadays, nobody checks you out like that. They just let everybody in.”
She said moving from Medford was hard, but she's glad to be closer to her kids, who live in Londonderry. Still, the adjustment was difficult. She had hoped for an apartment with a bedroom, but after being on the waiting list for two years, she took the first available space.
This is the fourth year the Caregivers have provided a Day of Cleaning for residents of the assisted living complex. Executive Director Cindee Tanuma said it's simply a great way to engage different school and community groups in volunteering, and lets residents know about her organization.
“It's a good way to let them know that we're available, if they should want a one-on-one match,” Tanuma said. “And it's a great experience for the kids, too.”
For more information on the Community Caregivers of Greater Derry, call 432-0877.