To those who asked and want to help, visit “NYC Service - Volunteer in New York City” where they are organizing emergency response services. http://www.nycservice.org/
That is where I found out about United Way Coney Island effort. The neighborhood which still doesn’t have public transportation access (hence fewer volunteers), but was one of the hardest hit, is Far Rockaway.
Rockaway relief: https://www.facebook.com/RockawayRelief
Staten Island relief community boards group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/276246989162508/
This is what I learned about yesterday, the trip to Coney island with and the effort that was underway:
What to expect (area and surroundings)
1. Lots of people who are willing to help congregating at the same place. Well-meaning, roll-up-the-sleeves kind of people.
2. Truthfully speaking I went into this experience thinking that I will be unsafe, hence didn’t wear earrings nor rings. Untrue! The real reason not to flash your valuables is out of sheer respect. You will be in post-disaster area, where residents are walking around, between rescue stations, procuring food packs and diaper bags for their children. Not being over the top is key in my opinion.
3. Expect lower than optimal organization. This is quite a new effort and needs and priorities of the residents are changing every day. The cell phone service and electricity are still not functional in most of the area, so coordination is a bit spotty. However, speaking up, raising concerns and being proactive are key. For example, United Way organizers didn’t have a loud speaker, so it helped to raise hands, speak up to pass the information towards the back of the crowd; or organize groups to cover every floor of high rise, etc. Over 80 people appeared at the meeting place yesterday (from every borough as far as the bronx and upper manhattan. Safety of volunteers was never compromised!
What to expect (People):
You are entering peoples lives, knocking on their doors and walking their hallways. We walked up, in some cases, 14 flights of stairs of the hardest hit project housing complex, situated right on the beach. This is doable! Flashlight and your group will get you through it. Be prepared for emission of musky odour when entering the lobby. Don’t make comments about it. People are entering that lobby on the way to their cold apartments every day, and may hear you. If your effort consists of knocking on doors of the dark hallways, remembering that some residents had unwelcome looters try to barge in the middle of the night. They may be startled and petrified upon hearing a knock on the door (especially the elderly). We left food and water by each door even if it remained closed for us.
What to expect (“get’er done”):
Don’t be fixated strictly on the mission (get to the 9th floor, get to the 9th floor) and the group directions, to miss an opportunity to stop and inquire if a resident needs assistance with lifting a cart to her floor (or in my case, also enlist local teenagers). This is a community that will remain there when you leave. My hope was to attempt to start conversations between residents and raise the level of concern about one another. Every door I knocked on I asked residents about their neighbors (are there any sick, immobile seniors, children on the floor, etc). If there were elderly present, I beseeched the able-bodied to check in on their immobile floor mates.
What I took away and what I learned:
The warm and electricity-filled Manhattan bubble quickly burst when I entered the area. It was overwhelming to see the National Guard and FEMA trucks outside. It can be also overwhelming to not be signed up with the organization and just “GO THERE” (like I tend to do other times in my life). However people need you and some are desperate for help. Your kind words and offers of food/water will not be turned down. Volunteers will always be mobilized with others who appear just like you. Of course, there is no need to act alone and enter apartment buildings on without a group to accompany you. My suggestion would be to mobilize with the clique of volunteers in the area OR sign up with one of the links I included above. Conducting basic research is also important, just to know which avenues and streets are organizing efforts. Helpful actions, no matter how small, can be extremely helpful and may stretch for longer than you can even imagine. Yesterday, as we were standing and waiting for provision delivery, a woman drove by, saw volunteers, and dropped off a box of sandwiches (fully expecting that we would lift them to the apartments). She didn’t have to get a flashlight and enter the puddled, smoky hallways, however her contribution was helpful as I brought the sandwich to an elderly woman in the higher floors of this apartment complex. Every effort is utilized!
Yesterday one of the ladies (who was Russian and incidentally turning 80) living on one of the top floors floors asked me about the phone charger for her ancient looking Samsung. Do I have one? I didn’t (there it was, I felt guilt because my iPhone had an extra battery pack that I could pop ON at any moment to allow me an extra boost). I walked through the area fully knowing that in 6 hours I would be on my way to the Upper West Side, heading towards a warm tea from Jackson Hole. I don’t know how many others feel this way or how they deal with it, but I learned a coping mechanism. Just like my interaction with the ER survivors, I walk out of the hospital (disaster area), reflecting on the past day, thinking about the ways I can spread the word and inspire others to do the same, and wonder what if I didn’t go in that day, the 80 year old woman in the public housing apartment building, floor 13 at the corner of Neptune and 33rd wouldn’t have the chance to call her helper in Brighton or her daughter in Florida to let them know she is ok and hasn’t been looted. Even if I connected with that one soul, it is enough for me to have come in and out.
Walk the area, learn of the efforts, don’t assume anything, speak up to passersby about which street corners have supplies, food and medicine trucks (people don’t have working phones, social media and don’t know which areas are bursting with relief workers), people will not give you trouble, I learned that residents will engage in conversation with you, ask you questions, human curiosity prevails.
Human spirit is alive, those living in most desperate post-hurricane conditions have hope, dignity and are not victims. You are privileged to enter their world.
My last anecdote which will stay with me for a while involves a young woman in line at the Red Cross truck. As she stood there waiting to receive medical supplies, one of her friends walked by, wearing a dust mask - he was cleaning one of the demolished buildings. She yelled out to him “Hey! HEY, Ted! Are you getting paid for this!? Where do I sign up!?” Why did this especially affected me? Why didn’t she offer to volunteer to help with the cleaning effort, like a good Samaritan? In my opinion, people want to help yes (and she could have volunteered), but they also want to earn money to get any sort of relief for their families. And unfortunately in that area there are no intact businesses remaining. Most of the small businesses are affected and closed. There is hardly transportation out of Coney. In addition, if one gets a job outside, returning home in the dark is not optimal, and dangerous. There is no win-win until those affected receive the support. They can’t be forgotten.