Sandy Relief: A Lesson in Volunteering

At the end of last week, when it was time to head back to work after two days at home post-Sandy, with the L train still down and traffic at a standstill, it turned out that a 90-minute walk was my best option. New York is a pedestrian city and I’ve lived here for over fifteen years; I’m fine getting where I need to go by foot. But when instead of a leisurely stroll, the walk is a brisk-paced race against the clock through streets without power (and without traffic lights), you can imagine, it’s no picnic. I made the most of it for a couple of days, figuring with the gym closed for lack of electricity, it would be my workout. Ha! I should be so motivated. By day three, I’d had enough. But as the week went on and I saw the flurry of news stories about neighborhoods ravaged by the storm, and grown men and women weeping like children at their lost homes, I knew my upset at having to trudge to work by foot was nothing but selfish.

So when Friday night rolled around, I got to work researching how I was going to help my fellow New Yorkers who were really suffering. I saw listings for countless organizations that were taking donations and accepting volunteers, some places even sending people out to visit the sites to canvas and bring supplies. Help was in high demand. Considering the train situation, I needed to go somewhere that I could get to, and beyond that, I wanted be sure I was helping deliver aid to some of the hardest hit areas. After hours of going back and forth, [as if one’s charity’s work is better than the next] I decided on Occupy Sandy.

So at eight o’clock on Saturday morning, I crawled out of bed, and with one of those giant blue IKEA totes, I headed out to the store to collect supplies: diapers, baby wipes, gloves, masks, garbage bags, bleach, batteries. My plan was to head to a church called St. Jacobi in another part of Brooklyn, that for the past week, has been serving as a hub for donations and volunteers. If you don’t know Brooklyn, it is a massive borough. So because I had to get to a neighborhood on the opposite end from where I live, I was going to hitch a ride with some other volunteers that were somewhat nearby me– a 20-minute walk from my apartment. So I headed there, the IKEA bag packed full and getting heavier with every block, and causing me to slow my pace. But I was sure I had enough time. When I finally arrived, at four minutes past the noted departure time, I found that the ride had already left. So it was on to plan B. I’d call a car service. Well, on a normal day, this wouldn’t have been so difficult, but with cell service down for whatever reason at that exact moment, anyone I tried to dial came up a fast busy signal. And trying to find an available car on the street that morning, was like the joke of the century. Sandy had turned what is already challenging NYC traffic into a whole new kind of beast.

So with the tote, at that point, cutting into my shoulder, I walked to the car service storefront a few blocks from where I had started fifteen minutes earlier. I was more or less starting from square one. And I was getting frustrated, because here I was only trying to do good, but everything seemed to be working against me. But I wasn’t turning back now. I would not give up. These people needed me. At 11 o’clock, I finally arrived at the church, where on the sidewalk, people and donations were spewing. I didn’t know where to go or what to do, but asked a friendly looking guy with a bearded face and an air of authority who then directed me to an orientation taking place in the chapel. There, we got a quick rundown of ongoing tasks that were available to help out with, and heard a few of the basics about how the Occupy movement works—how everyone is welcome; how there’s no discrimination, and how it’s a horizontal structure, meaning that anyone can take on a leadership role if they would like to.

Minutes later I was downstairs in the parish hall where goods were being dropped off and sorted, bags were being packed to be sent out to victims, and food was being prepped and cooked. A man in an apron was calling out to the room of volunteers, “Does anyone have raisins? Does anyone have raisins?” I couldn’t imagine why raisins would be so important, but looking around, I had to trust him. It was obvious that despite the scene before me looking like absolute mayhem, there was some sort of order. There were so many different things happening at once, so many people moving in different directions, but work actually getting accomplished. I was impressed.

My first job was at a table stacked with canned goods—so many you could stock an entire bodega. I, and a few others, had to move them across the room to the main canned food area. Easy enough. Done. Time to move on. I circled the room, looking for some direction as to what to do next, and finally decided that it was up to me to find my own job. So I put my bold face on, walked up to a vegetable table full of strangers and asked if they needed help. “Sure,” one girl said. “We just don’t have any peelers.” So I went on a hunt for the kitchen, found a drawer with tools inside and headed back to the table where for the next two hours, I peeled and chopped potatoes and carrots. At one point, a couple left and there were two empty spaces at the table. One of the leaders who was organizing the food prep efforts called out that we needed replacements for them. And as if he had been waiting in the wings to land one of the coveted spots, a twelve-year-old boy jumped in with a raised hand shouting with fervor, “I’ll do it!” Every one of us at the table looked up with wide eyes, hoping someone would say what all of us were thinking. And there the kitchen organizer did indeed. “How ‘bout you just stick with peeling,” he said.  “It’s ok. I’ve used a knife before,” the boy replied confidently. “I’m sure you have,” the coordinator said back. “I’d just feel better that you stick with peeling, since it’s so crowded in here. I wouldn’t want you to cut yourself.” Obviously disappointed, but willing to take whatever he could get, the boy agreed and joined us, yelling to his father at the next station over, “Dad, I’m doing food prep! I’m doing food prep.” You would have thought we’d given him the role of head chef.

My next stop was the peanut butter and jelly table, which oddly enough, I had been eyeing for some time. Aside from being a longtime fan of the PB&J, I suppose I imagined that assembling the soft, sweet sandwiches in mass quantities would be more pleasant than peeling and chopping endless bags of carrots and potatoes. It wasn’t long before I realized that this was not the case at all. Making a single peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch at home is one thing; making hundreds by way of assembly line, at a folding table in a church hall, in an emergency relief effort, using plastic utensils—that’s another entirely. Peanut butter is thick and jelly is sticky, and the two together make for a messy pair. Beyond that, plastic knives like to snap in half when used to spread the stuff. Then there’s the overflowing bread-basket, filled with everything from packaged white to packaged wheat to artisanal seven grain with nuts and seeds. With such a mélange, there is no guarantee both slices of a sandwich are going to be a match. But I suppose in the end, looks don’t really matter when you’re hungry.

From peanut butter and jelly, it was on to pulled pork, and after pulled pork it was home. On the bus, I looked down and found a shred of carrot skin dried on my jacket, and on the underside of my sleeve, a sticky smear of jelly. It looked like I had taken a bath inside a dirty dishwasher and I smelled like a pulled pork sandwich. I was hoping no one around me would notice. But then I thought about why I looked the way I did and smelled the way I did. And I was thankful that at least I had a warm home to go to with a fridge full of food, a hot shower and my own bed to sleep in. I remembered that I was one of the lucky ones.

Day 2

By the end of Saturday, even before the shower and having something to eat, I was feeling on top of the world. I was, really—like my heart was overflowing with love. Cheesy, I know, but they do say that volunteering stimulates the release of endorphins, so…   Anyway, whatever it was, I was feeling great and there was no way I wasn’t going to go back for more. And of course, having gone through the drill once already—getting there, orientation, finding my way around and finding something to do– I felt prepared going back. I was ready for another productive day that I was sure would be even better than the one before.

I should have figured, by the way the morning started out though, that there was a chance things would not end up exactly as I had imagined. I should have seen the bus being 30 minutes late as a sign. But I’m an optimist through and through, so the fact that I waited on a stoop in the chilly air for half an hour didn’t really phase me. I arrived at the church a little later than I had wanted to, but I had all day and there was lots of work to be done.

At first glance, nothing was different from the day before, but very soon I noticed that there seemed more people…more stuff…and, more chaos. But as I had planned it, I wouldn’t be staying anyway. For Day 2, I wanted to be out in the field—to see the people I was helping face to face, to deliver hot meals and knock on doors to find out what they needed most. But, I wasn’t alone in this and I didn’t have a car. So for those who hoped to hitch a ride with another driver, there were two lines to wait in on the sidewalk outside the church—one for people with boots, the other for people without. I hadn’t thought of this and I had chosen to wear sneakers. So as the ones in work boots and golashes were whisked away to the Rockaways and Staten Island, I was running food and supplies upstairs, downstairs, from the donation room to cars and back. In all honesty, I felt less like I was doing any good and more like a hamster running circles in a toy wheel. And by the end of the day I was wishing I had just stuck to chopping carrots.

It wasn’t until I was home that night, watching the news again, that I started to see everything in perspective. First, that volunteering isn’t about how you, the volunteer feels—the endorphins and all of that—but instead, about the work you do and the people you’re helping. So I like to get my hands dirty, and when I didn’t get to that day, I was disappointed. I’m only human. But just because I didn’t feel like I was doing anything so important, it didn’t mean my simple tasks weren’t. Every job in an effort such as this one, is as important as the next, whether it’s sweeping the floor, sorting toiletries or lugging water to cars. So I didn’t get to go to visit the sites and I didn’t feel so fulfilled. I wasn’t sitting on a cloud like I had been the night before, but it was ok.

As the rain (and snow) and wind begin again, the effort to help these people is certainly not going to just end; the need is not going to go away. I will go back to help.

And when I do, I’ll just be sure to wear my boots.

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One thought on “Sandy Relief: A Lesson in Volunteering

  1. Kate says:

    Couldn’t agree with your sentiments more. Occupy Sandy are doing an amazing job and it brought home to me the scale of help needed far more effectively than any tv or newspaper report. I’ll be heading down there again this weekend (and just in case I’ll take some proper cutlery to smear PB&J!) x

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