Cantor Fitzgerald, its relief fund and its affiliate BGC Partners will donate $1,000 to each family to spend as they see fit. The schools are in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, Long Island and New Jersey.
Cantor Fitzgerald CEO Howard Lutnick said each family will receive a debit card.
"This is going to be used up in a heartbeat because we have nothing," said Theresa Ward, who lined up Thursday with her husband, Paul, in the auditorium of Public School 256 in Far Rockaway, Queens.
The grateful couple left immediately to shop for a bed for their 17-year-old son. The furniture in his ground-floor bedroom was among their destroyed possessions. Their home still doesn't have heat and now the family, which also includes a 4-year-old boy, is planning to move.
Lutnick said he learned after Cantor's devastating loss of so many employees with young children that help should come with no strings attached.
"The best way to take care of a family is to put money in the hands of the parents and let them decide what to do," he said. "Maybe they need a couch and maybe they need to go to Toys R Us and buy their kids a present."
Cantor Fitzgerald's headquarters on the 101st through 105th floors of One World Trade Center were destroyed when terrorists struck the tower, and the company lost two-thirds of its New York work force. Lutnick was not in the office but his brother Gary was killed. The company's death toll of 658 was by far the largest of any single employer.
The Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund run by Lutnick's sister Edie was established to aid the families of Cantor employees lost on Sept. 11 but its scope has since expanded to include scores of charities around the world.
Each year on Sept. 11 the company donates the day's revenues to charity and employees donate their day's pay. The effort raised $12 million last September.
"We wanted to have a way that we could memorialize those that we lost in a way that was positive, and to do good things," Edie Lutnick said.
She said that when Sandy hit the region last October the relief fund immediately wanted to help. The schools selected for aid are in areas where Cantor employees live or have other connections.
"We're really excited that we have the opportunity to help the families from these 19 schools to let them know that communities matter and that we care," Edie Lutnick said.
The Lutnicks joined U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) and other officials at the Far Rockaway school to hand out the first cash cards.
Cantor Fitzgerald has been affected by Sandy itself. The firm moved its headquarters to midtown after the 2001 attacks but it had more than 500 employees at an office on Water Street in lower Manhattan when the storm hit. They relocated to Cantor's other offices, Howard Lutnick said. The Water Street site has still not reopened.