Friday, May 3, 2013

Social network site for volunteers

  Since volunteering up in New York, for post Sandy recovery, I have felt as if there has been a void within the volunteer community that desperately needs to be filled. The void I am referring to is the need for a social networking site for volunteers. A social networking site for volunteers would give a platform where volunteers, volunteer groups, and NGO's could in real time share their successes, stories, tips, needs, etc. to a network of volunteers around the world. Imagine being able to see volunteer efforts on a global scale, with the same ease as being able to update your Facebook status. If society can make taking a picture of your lunch simultaneously, relevant and accessible to millions of people, why aren't we doing the same for volunteer efforts that could change the world?

   Social networking has become a part of the global culture of how we share our lives. This relatively new way of instantly communicating has become a form of self-expression, but also self-promotion. Society has allowed sites such as Facebook (and at one point, Myspace) to encourage a culture that makes a person's perceived self-worth directly proportional to how much their self-promotion is supported by others. Due to the fact that I am currently in my early twenties and was a teenager when Myspace became popular, I recognize the fact that a part of me is a product of this emphasis on instant gratification.

  Although, this aspect of social networking can be seen as a negative, it is my belief that this need for 'self-promotion' can be used to implement progress on long-standing global issues. By understanding social networking's influence and place within people's daily lives, there can be an honest discussion as to how what is normally seen as selfish, can be used to create meaningful communication. Despite the fact that some may think it impossible, I believe that it is within society's potential to evolve into a culture where volunteer work is not seen as a fringe hobby or something to do on the side. Instead, within this evolved culture, volunteer work is an integrated part of someone's entire life and expected from those who have the ability to participate.  

   Social networking has become a vital tool in communicating within current society but is entirely under-utilized by the volunteer community, in general. Facebook allows for organization 'pages', but exposure for a small scale volunteer group is limited, at best. Twitter allows for 'hashtags' to organize tweets and 'direct tweets' which can be addressed to influential people. However, the sheer volume of information posted on a daily basis makes it almost impossible for volunteers to be heard/seen. 

  While both of these social networking sites/apps reach a global audience, one's visibility relies on who you know or how many people know of you. Specifically in regards to Facebook, the major issue with the 'pages' portion is that people have to search for your exact 'page' name or event in order to find it. Or if you're lucky, friends will post/share your page's information to their friends, who in turn, might share that information with their friends (and so on, and so on). This inefficient system renders small, grass-root organizations and independent volunteers voiceless. 

  However, I have noticed (and relied heavily) on certain region/event specific groups (Sandy recovery, Adairsville, GA tornado recovery, etc). These groups can be highly effective for relaying information to locals, highlighting issues within a community, and providing a direct link for volunteers to become involved.However, the people managing these groups can become overwhelmed by the volume of information to sift through, on top of all the varying duties required for running a relief/recovery volunteer effort. For certain natural disasters or issues, these efforts are proportional and appropriate to complete the tasks they sought to fix. Some issues are not so easily fixed, however, and require a more sustainable network through which progress can be made. 

  Although traditional websites seem like the logical solution to provide a more sustainable platform of communication, they lack the instant magic that social network sites create. The layout of a traditional website is generally predictable and not engaging. The main strengths, on various social networking sites, lie mostly in their ability to instantly update/inform others. This is something that traditional websites can incorporate bits and pieces of to their sites, but will never be able to fully attain. 

  I can personally testify as to how frustrating it is to type, share, post, blog, 'like', tweet, direct tweet, follow, friend, etc. on/about a particular volunteer effort and have it be ignored because a new, funny cat video went viral (although, I have to admit, I do enjoy funny cat videos). I remember one particular instance in which I was trying to get pricing information about shipping items to the Rockaways in time for Christmas. I was tweeting, posting, hashtagging, sharing, direct tweeting, and direct messaging anyone and everyone who seemed like they could have answers for me. No one responded to me. It was excruciating to have minutes, hours, days go by so slowly and feel trapped by a lack of information.  Eventually, I got a response from someone but for the days in which there was no response, I remember thinking to myself "If a volunteer tweets to the internet, does anyone hear/see it?" 

  I have begged, pleaded, prayed, and even thought about the occasional sacrificial animal to please the Internet Gods. All of this, in order to have people get involved with volunteer work easily accessible to them. Sometimes the persistent nagging would work, and other times it seemed very much in vain. It is my belief that a social networking site for volunteers (with the correct specifications) could greatly decrease this frustrating 'drowning-out' of important information, while also providing a supportive community, so as to prevent other novice volunteers from feeling the discouraging feeling that comes from a lack of information. 

 The need for information-sharing among the volunteer community is very real, and is often a topic that I hear discussed. Since coming back from Haiti I have been spending night after night thinking about this very real need and how it could bring about a cultural evolution towards volunteer work. 

 A part of my brain-storming sessions included (and continues to include) research into already existing volunteer websites and apps. In my research I have found that there are very few public access volunteer databases, in which you can search for volunteer opportunities. The few that are available mainly focus on city, state, or regional volunteer opportunities and are presented in a traditional, linear interface. Although some do provide the option of creating a 'profile', the profile options are limited and non-engaging. Here is a link to a list of apps I have researched, downloaded, and played around with:

  It has become clear to me, through my research, that the type of social networking site for volunteers that I envision does not exist. The product I envision would combine social networking and an interactive global map (think Google Maps but linked to profiles/projects), which would serve as a type of volunteer work database. The social network would consists of two main components, both of which are engaging, interactive, and provide information sharing. Details about the layout/construction of the site can be found in the Prezi I have created. Contact me if you would like to see the presentation. 

   What I believe sets this idea apart from what is currently available is the interface's interactive/engaging nature, the emphasis on integrating pre-existing popular social networking sites, and the unique combination of a volunteer network and database, with information sharing about volunteer work and essential travel tips, reviews, rankings, etc. of local businesses (including: housing, food, transportation, etc.)

  I am currently still tweaking certain aspects of the idea, but as a whole, I believe I have a concrete idea of what I see for this product and how it would function. I have no computer programming experience and know next to nothing about developing technology. I am aware, however, that this idea would require a large amount of programming and is an ambitious undertaking. As of right now, it's an idea based on a need, that I not only see, but feel on a daily basis. 

  The whole point is to make volunteer work and volunteer information more accessible, easier, and safer. I have a strong belief that if a platform made volunteer work more engaging (photos, videos, notes, etc.) for the younger generations, while also removing the mysticism of 'where to start', that more people would be willing to see volunteer work as an opportunity to help, travel, and explore the world they live in. 

  My world has been forever changed by volunteering and I just want to give others the same opportunities that I've been fortunate enough to experience. I see this as another opportunity to give back what volunteering has given me. I have faith in my generation, and generations to come, that if given the tools to enact positive change, that we will step up to the plate. I see this idea/product as a way to incorporate the key terms I often hear when discussing volunteer work/global issues: Sustainability (engaging the younger generations) and Information sharing (public global database with fun, easy interface) 

 Please let me know your thoughts and opinions about this idea. Thank you for taking the time to read this!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Haiti Earth Day Trip: Part 1

The entire purpose of this blog is to information share with as many current or potential volunteers as possible. So, the first installment about my time in Haiti is a sort of 'How to' guide for future volunteer trips.

Everything I am recommending is from personal experience or from seeing others and learning from their experiences.

Due to the frequency of random occurrences that seem to happen while volunteering/traveling in Haiti (and other foreign countries) I have decided to use the letters 'JIC' to stand for 'just in case'.

What to pack:
This really depends on what you plan on doing there and because of that I have decided to organize the packing list into various categories.

The Absolute Essentials If You Plan On Doing Outdoor Volunteer Work:
-2x the amount of underwear you think you will need. *JIC 
I know, I know, twice the amount seems crazy and unnecessary but please, just trust me on this. Random things will happen and you will be thankful you were prepared.
Side note for the ladies: Thongs, sweat, heat, and lots of walking/physical activity do not go well together. Granny panties all the way. Also, sport bras. It sounds like such a 'duh' item, but people tend to forget 'duh' items a lot.

-Durable, ankle covering socks.
Again, pack 2 or 3 more pairs than you plan on using *JIC

One for showering and then a hand towel (not a washcloth). Both should be cheap and lightweight. The hand towel will come in 'handy' if you're doing volunteer work outdoors, during the day. Volunteer work in Haiti rarely happens inside and there are very few places to seek shade. A hand towel is easy to roll up in a backpack or bag, can provide shade for your face/neck, and can be used to wipe away sweat. You should also try and get the hand towel in white or another light color, as lighter colors won't absorb as much heat as darker ones will.

-Sweat-proof Sunscreen: 
As I've said, doing volunteer work outdoors, during the day, in Haiti is grueling. There is little to no shade and you WILL sweat. A lot. Therefore, I suggest sweat-proof sunscreen, preferably aerosol/spray form, which will prevent the issue of gross, greasy hands. Whether it's spray form or not, though, sweat-proof is the most important part. Also, it should be SPF 35 or higher. Take it from me, you can apply sunscreen as often as you'd like but if you keep sweating it off, it is not going to protect your skin. The sun and heat in Haiti are no joke. You do not want to get a sunburn in a place where there's no access to air-conditioning and the average daily temperature is 90 degrees year round.

 Baseball cap, bucket hat, sun hat, sombrero, etc. It doesn't really make a difference which type you pack, just make sure you have at least one. The best type that I've found are the ones that are baseball caps with the flap in the back to protect your neck:
Honestly, though, you just want to pack one that you wouldn't mind getting incredibly sweaty, dirty, or that you wouldn't mind losing.

Again, doesn't matter what type, as long as you pack a pair. I reccomend finding a cheap pair from the drugstore (Walgreens, CVS, or even Walmart) that you don't mind getting scratched up or that you wouldn't mind losing.
Side Note: If you are around local kids and have sunglasses on, do not be surprised if they ask you to give them your sunglasses. So, if saying 'no' to kids isn't your thing, then pack some extra pairs to give out.

Hiking boots, work/construction boots, combat boots, etc. will all work just fine. The exact type doesn't really matter.
The things that do matter: Do they cover your ankles? Will they stay on your feet when you're in mud? Can you walk through rubble or over broken glass/other sharp objects in them? When walking through puddles of various mystery liquids, will they keep your feet dry? If they can accomplish all of those things, then you're good.  Personally, I prefer my Army Surplus combat boots because they are relatively cheap ($40.00), I've previously used them in other dangerous environments where they've proven themselves reliable, and they effectively cover my ankles without restricting my ankle's range of motion.

They're lightweight, versatile, and probably the cheapest thing on this entire packing list. They can be used
as a type of sweat-band on your forehead, they can provide protection for your neck from the sun, and can be wrapped around your face to keep out unwanted smells/ filter out the air you breathe in. There are too many uses/functions for bandanas for me to mention all of them right now, but you get the general idea of how useful they can be.
*Special tip*: Bandanas, when soaked in the astringent Sea Breeze, can be used to immediately and drastically cool somebody down. It's better to soak the bandana in astringent instead of water to cool off because water will most likely be scarce and should be saved for drinking.
Sea Breeze:

-Disinfecting wipes/Hand sanitizer:
These are especially important if you are planning on coming into contact with local kids. The children are usually so excited to see new people and new faces that they will grab on to you in any way that they can. Hands, arms, legs, shoulders, and even faces are all fair game to hold/grab on to. The main issue with this becomes any dirt (or other things) that were once on their hands are now on you. Having the wipes/ hand sanitizer around helps keep the spread of germs to a minimum, while also removing any top layer of dirt that may have found its way onto your skin.

-Water bottle:
Have at least one full water bottle on you at all times when working outside. Haiti is hot to begin with, but when doing physically demanding labor it becomes almost unbearable. If you plan on spending any considerable amount of time outside you WILL need water. Hopefully there will be a clean water pump for you to refill your bottle with, but in case there isn't one, pack extra bottles already filled with water. I made the mistake of not packing my own water bottle on the day I needed it most and deeply regretted it. I became a liability for the team and put my health at risk. It is generally understood that every member of a volunteer team should be self-reliant and responsible for their own health. Water is one of the most important aspects of everyone's health and should be one of the first things you pack before heading out for a day of physical activity in Haiti.

-First aid kit *JIC:
Pretty self-explanatory but a 'must have' for sure.
Things to have in your kit:
-waterproof medical tape
-alcohol swabs

-Granola/Fruit/Protein Bars: *JIC
Hopefully you or your fellow volunteers have already organized the details for your meals during the
trip. In case something happens, though, it's always a good idea to have one or two snacks on you. Sometimes even the most well thought out plans can change and in the event that a meal is not provided as quickly as you may need it to be, having easily portable snacks on hand is always helpful.

And lots of it.

Finally, you'll need a backpack to put all of this stuff in! I saw all kinds of different backpacks being
used during the trip. One made out of waterproof material struck me as a particularly smart idea but as long as you can fit all your essential items in it, I see no backpack really being that much better than another. Considering how much dirt (and other things) ended up getting on the one I used, I would recommend using one that you don't mind getting dirty (or possibly throwing away after the trip).

The things I wish people had told me to pack:
-Cheap, plastic sandals to wear in the shower:
You will most likely be staying in a place with limited shower access and if there are showers, they are most likely outdoor showers that you share with who knows how many other people, doing who knows what in the shower before you got there. Skip the ick and bring some flip-flops.

-Bathing suit or Bikini (for ladies)/Swimming trunks (for guys):
Again, most showering takes place outdoors in Haiti. If you're lucky, there will be a door on your outdoor shower. If you're not lucky, then a bathing suit is the best way to avoid awkward situations. Also, just because there is a door, this doesn't mean it will stay closed when there is breeze coming through (Yes, that happened to me). Oh, it's also important to be aware of where you are showering. What I mean by that is, from where you're showering, is there a rooftop from which someone could watch you? (And yes, this also happened to me). Although the initial use of the bathing suit might be for showering, it's also nice to have just in case you want to take a day to go to the beach :-)
-Cocoon Silk Travel Bag/Sheet:
Before arriving in Haiti, I had prepared for the eventuality of having to interact with bugs by buying and packing lots and lots of bug spray. The one bug I hadn't prepared for, however, was the bed bug. It took me a couple days to figure out that my swollen, itchy bites hadn't all come from mosquitos, but were also from a bed bug infestation in the bed I was sleeping in. Well, lesson learned. From now on, I'm traveling with one of these guys:
Expensive? Yes. Worth it? Hell yes.

-Portable Fan:
Small and battery operated are preferable. If staying in a room with no AC, I highly suggest packing this item (and extra batteries in case the first pair run out). The room I stayed in had no AC, one window with very little access to a breeze, and was a part of the main building (so there was no door to crack open to get a breeze). As I've previously stated, Haiti's average temperature is around 90 degrees and even with the sun down, it can be unbearably hot. Save yourself from night after night of restless sweating and bring a fan. 

-Mosquito Net:
Just because a place has one already in the room for you, you won't know the condition that it's in until you're there and if it's damaged/has holes in it, you're as good as bitten. I had a net with a hole the size of my foot in it, and yes, I got bitten. A lot. They're inexpensive (I've seen some for as little as $7.00) and easy to pack. 

-Baby wipes:
There were some mornings that I was just not in the mood to take another cold shower but had to because of how much I would sweat at night. Those mornings are when baby wipes would have been super convenient. You may also have times in which the showers are out of order or occupied,  making baby wipes a desired commodity.
It is important to differentiate, though, that although disinfecting wipes may have similar cleaning  properties, they are NOT to be used in certain sensitive areas. It is for that reason that I suggest bringing both baby wipes and disinfecting wipes.
Baby wipes are also super useful when/if toilet paper runs out ...

-Work Gloves:
Gardening gloves, work gloves, whatever you call them, they're made to protect your hands when working outdoors and they were sorely missed when we planted trees. There were all sorts of 'surprises' in the soil that left some volunteers with cuts on their hands. Thankfully, I avoided getting any cuts but felt the need for gloves when moving rocks and digging with my hands. They're a definite packing item if you plan on doing any sort planting, construction, or demolition work.

Other Suggestions:
-Don't skip the toiletries:
-Do everyone a favor (including yourself) and pack deodorant.
-Bring aloe vera and Calamine lotion *JIC
-Make sure you pack a toothbrush AND toothpaste (I didn't think I'd ever pack one and forget the
                                                                                        other but it happened)
-Shampoo and body wash should be as unscented as possible to avoid attracting bugs.

-Keep covered:
-I know it's hot and so long sleeves and jean pants aren't your first choice, but long pants and lightweight long sleeve shirts will protect your skin from sun, bugs, and dirt.
-Also, be respectful of the fact that you're in a foreign country to do volunteer work, so while doing that work, don't wear anything revealing or inappropriate.

-Extras that make a difference:
-If you're planning on staying in Haiti for a while, it might be worth it to purchase an international phone/plan. Personally, I found it very frustrating to not be able to make phone calls. However, due to
the communitere's wifi, I was able to use twitter, facebook, and the internet on both my phone and laptop.
-An English to Creole dictionary might be a useful investment if you plan on staying for a while or directly talking with locals.
-If you plan on paying for goods/services with US dollars bring many different types of bills (1's, 5's, 10's, and 20's are a must)
-Hand mirrors are useful to bring. Not really all that necessary, but nice to have if you can fit it in your bag.
-One small bottle of a strong perfume. Spray it on a bandana to cover up unwanted smells, spray in your hair on mornings that showers aren't available, etc.
-One bottle of pain reliever and one bottle of Pepto each. *JIC

-It's the middle of the night and you have to go to the outhouse ...
-Pack a flashlight and extra batteries *JIC

  If certain items on these lists seem unnecessary or extravagant, then by all means skip over them. Some items make more sense for some volunteers/trips more than others.  However, I know what it felt like/looked  like to go without them. It's also my opinion that I'd prefer to be overly-prepared and as self-sufficient as possible for future trips. 

  Unfortunately, I was not as prepared as I could have been for this past trip and ended up relying on the other volunteers around me when I shouldn't have. Although everyone was super generous in their help, it made me realize what I need to do in order to be more of an asset to a volunteer team next time around. It's my hope that by sharing this information, that it educates more self-reliant and self-sufficient volunteers.

  I promise, there's more exciting entries about Haiti Earth Day 2013 coming up!!! Check back when I go  into detail about the conference, The Boom Booms, and volunteering in Cite Soleil!

Much love and well wishes,

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Rockaway Winter Break: Installment #3

               Getting back to the Rockaways for Christmas Break was like going through déjà vu. Not only had it been the one thing on my mind ever since coming back from Thanksgiving Break, so it seemed as if time had been on fast forward, but I was shocked to see that almost nothing had changed. A period of roughly a month had gone by and yet it all seemed to look the same. Walking down the beach I saw the same abandoned, destroyed homes that I had been shocked to see the first time and found myself once again, taken aback. However, this time it was because nothing had been done to change them. And the community desperately needed (and continues to need) changes due to issues with mold and the threat of extremely cold weather.
                The situation was dangerous when I left the first time and only became even more dangerous by the time I got up there again.  Going back to a disaster zone and seeing the same heartbreaking scenes over and over threw me into a tailspin of emotions almost immediately. Flashes of anger, depression, and frustration were going through me almost as fast as questions were popping into my mind. "How could this still be the same?", "Where did the volunteers go?", "Who is responsible for this?", and "Why is this being allowed?" are some of the questions that came to mind when observing the all too familiar landscape of debris before me.
                The detail that seems to go unnoticed by people outside of the Rockaways (and other similar communities) is that by there being a lack of change, it changes everything. It changes every aspect of the resident's lives because while they are still without electricity, heat, or the basic necessities of modern society (internet, warm showers, etc.) they are having to watch the world forget about them. This, in particular, I think lead to the palpable tension radiating from locals that I would encounter while walking the beach or around the streets. Just walking past somebody you could feel their eyes questioning who you were, why you were there, and if they should trust you or not. And I don't blame them at all, considering the amount of fraud that has taken place since Sandy hit.
                 It really felt as if this community was losing hope. Volunteer tents and shelters, that had become safe havens for families and vulnerable people, were being taken down at an alarming rate. That, compounded by the fact that most residents were meeting an impasse in regards to their insurance companies, gave the Rockaways an eerie  feeling. Every aspect of progress seemed to be halting or slowing down, while the frustrations and needs of the community were rapidly increasing. This continuous, daily friction was visible on everyone and was not the picture I had envisioned for my second volunteer trip.
                It's not as if the people of the Rockaways were just letting things happen, ignoring, or overlooking any of these growing issues. The real problem becomes when a family or resident is being forced to fix their home with little or no help (physically or monetarily), having to keep track of whatever bullshit (excuse my language but I couldn't think of another word that seemed to express the situation appropriately) the insurance companies are trying to pull  on them, and work their full time jobs. How could anyone expect people to do all of that, in addition to their regular bills, problems, and issues? With all of this becoming worse every passing day it's no wonder why these people looked hardened and cautious.
                In fact, when it comes to the topic of the needs of Rockaway, NY, I saw posts daily (on Facebook) from residents and volunteers (on the ground and other places) who were sending out messages begging, pleading, and crying out for help. These people did not just fade from the public's view without a fight. They wanted to be heard and to have people understand their situation. Thankfully, their voices have just recently been heard enough for Congress to pass the Sandy Aid Bill (more on that and the Sandy Walk A Mile event later).
                But now you begin to understand what it was like to walk back into the Rockaways and the issues facing everyone within or entering the community. However, despite all of the setbacks that everyone was facing there were still Christmas lights, decorated trees, and nativity scenes wherever there was an occupied home. Those details show  the resilience and spirit of these incredibly strong people, who have had to face so much and yet continue to create the atmosphere of Christmas in the middle of a disaster zone.
                While up there, it became a struggle to fight off the urge of becoming overwhelmed by the tasks ahead of us. Without the reminders of strength and positivity that the Christmas decorations provided (along with the amazing company of the Mahoney-Schneider family and my fellow volunteers), it would have been easy to succumb to feeling defeated. For as much as the overall feeling within the Rockaways was serious, every time we would go out on our volunteer assignment for the day, we would make such wonderful connections with the people we were working with/for.
                They are particularly inspiring because although they have lost almost everything, they still keep a sense of humor and a positive outlook on life. Without fail, every assignment that included us working with residents ended with smiles, laughs, and an invitation to "come back when things are normal". I've talked about the generosity from residents that I saw during my first trip and even  all throughout my time in-between trips, but it was an incredible reminder of how much these people are willing to give to others.
                 An example of this generosity is when we dug out Randi Savron's front yard on day #4 of the trip. Randi approached the My Heart Belongs to Rockaways page on Facebook asking if her front yard could be dug out because she wanted to be able to plant her gardens again. I gladly accepted her request and we arranged all the details over Facebook. We showed up that morning with shovels, gloves, a wheel barrow, buckets  and all the other tools necessary to complete a 'dig out' (aka: our "To-Go" bag). Seeing as how Randi has a full time job, she couldn't be there to meet us but instead notified her neighbor that we were coming to volunteer. As we were driving down to be dropped off at Randi's condo we spotted two volunteers that we had met/worked with during day #3 (more on that day later). Myles and Ryan, who were two volunteers who drove up from Texas, decided to join us again to help out with the digging.
                 All of us were met by her neighbor (whose name escapes me at the moment) and began work. First, let me give some advice, which is: If you're going to be removing top soil use a flat 'head' shovel, not a spade 'head'  shovel. Also, top soil is very difficult to remove when it is close to freezing outside, so it is best to loosen the dirt up by rapidly hitting it with the sharp side of the shovel first. Keep in mind that all of this soil had to be gathered into the wheelbarrow (dirt+wheelbarrow=HEAVY) and then dumped across the street. This process is repeated countless times and is not made any easier due to the concrete, brick, and wood that is buried in the sand/dirt. As you can gather, digging up top soil with the wrong type of shovel while in cold, overcast weather, repeatedly,  is physically exhausting.
                 Randi's neighbor knew how exhausted we were going to be and offered to go buy us lunch from the local pizza shop. When we stopped for lunch, not only did she order us more than enough delicious, fresh pizza but she bought us garlic knots and more soda than we could ever drink by ourselves. She even invited us into one of the condos that was being repaired and it had heat and a bathroom (it sounds silly to be impressed by these features but in the Rockaways these are not guaranteed things).           
                Here we were, complete strangers, trying to help her and her neighbors and she ends up being the one that buys us a delicious meal!  If we hadn't been so tired and hungry from digging I would have refused her offer, as it seemed backwards for the person who we were supposed to be helping to be providing food for us. But that is the type of compassion and generosity that is prevalent within the Rockaways.  It is situations such as these that I remember being an inspiration to (forgive the unintentional pun) dig deeper within myself for the task in front of me, when all I wanted to do was sit and rest. It's just one example, one story out of many, that keeps me fighting for this community to receive help.
                These people have everything working against them: Lack of funding, lack of governmental support, insurance companies avoiding paying for damages, a dwindling interest from the public and media, freezing temperatures followed by heavy sleet and snow, no electricity in some homes, no heat in others, and of course the issue of mold. Even with all these horrible obstacles to navigate they keep their chin up and get through everything thrown their way. Through all of this, they never feel sorry for themselves or give up an inch. So, for as long as they need help, it's my goal to provide any help I can and make sure that in the process they know that they're not forgotten. 
                These people deserve for there to be answers and actions to bring their lives back to normal. They deserve better than a "We don't know" from government. And they certainly deserve better than a "We don't care" from the public. As Elie Wiesel said “The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.” The people of Rockaway, NY cannot afford any more indifference.


Monday, January 28, 2013

Rockaway: Winter Break Installment #2

This post gives an outline of what the My Heart Belongs to Rockaways (MHBR) volunteers did during our winter break volunteer trip. It also includes personal testimonials from the volunteers, which summarize their experience and chronicle their time in Rockaway, NY.

General outline of what the My Heart Belongs to Rockaways volunteers did during our trip:

Day 1- Ren, Jingo and Allie (Team Delta) : dug out* Uncle James' house on 101st street. Angie and Demetria (Team JetBlue) arrive in New York
Day 2-  MHBR volunteers (Allie, Angie, Demetria, and Jingo) 'demo-ed'* a house on 101st street.
Day 3- MHBR volunteers built a fence for the Mahoney-Schneider family on 131st street. Biker Mike, Myles Byrne, and Ryan Byrne also helped build the fence.
Day 4- MHBR volunteers along with Myles and Ryan Byrne dug out Randi Savron's front yard
Day 5- MHBR volunteers drylocked part of the Mahoney-Schneider house and enjoyed a night out in NYC
Day 6- MHBR volunteers, along with residents, cleared out and installed insulation in Mike's house on 101st street, followed by a night in Staten Island. We also got to ride the Staten Island Ferry!
Day 7- MHBR volunteers cleared out/removed debris from the Mahoney-Schneider family's backyard. Later that night we accompanied the family to the neighborhood event 'Little North Pole'.
Day 8- MHBR volunteers and family painted the fence. MHBR volunteers left that evening (Christmas Eve)

*Dug out/dig out - to remove sand, dirt, debris (of all shapes and sizes imaginable), etc from an area.
*Demo-ed/demo - to demolish/ remove any contaminated portions of a house; includes tearing down sheet rock, insulation, and any other parts of a wall that have sustained water/mold damage.

Personal testimonials from MHBR volunteers:

From Jingo:
       My name is Jingo and I am an International student from Taiwan. This is actually my fifth month here in the US. To be honest, I had never thought about going to New York, let alone volunteering. I still remember when I met Allie on campus after Alison Thompson's speech, where she explained the volunteer trip to Rockaway. I really had no idea what she was talking about, but when I heard the word "volunteer" I didn't have a second thought- I said "Count on me". Therefore, when Ms. Jensen told me she was going to donate my flight ticket, it made the dream become more real.
    I could tell that this was the most meaningful trip I had in the US so far. I really learned a lot. For example, I now know how to build a fence. Also, I learned how to demo a house and what to be concerned about while doing it. We were not only there to help, but we also learned important lessons.

From Demetria:
           Everyone heard about what happened in the Far Rockaway and had moved past it as if everything was fine now. Until Allison Rodgers, a former classmate, reassured that things were not fine and she took action immediately after visiting. She recruited people she felt was serious about volunteering for this place she now knew as a second home. I was lucky enough to be a part of this moment to give back to others without even knowing how bad things truly were.
                It was my first time ever being on a airplane in my life, I was nervous and excited at the same time during takeoff. We landed in New York not to visit and site see but to give our time to something very important. While being in the Far Rockaway a lot of things were brought to my attention that weren't being talked about on the news or from my family members that live in New York. The day after Angie and I got to the Rockaways we took a walk down the beach along with Allison and Jingo to see how bad things really were. I had heard it looked like a bomb had went off and that saying was by far the best way to describe things, things were not perfect. Homes that families had been living in for decades, needed to be demolished and built from scratch because there was nothing left. Passing by one of the homes you literally could see that it was only standing by the two beams that the house was originally built with. It was devastating to see that people had nowhere to call home or to even live anymore.
                This touched me personally because I could never in a million years imagine this happening to my family until I visited the Rockaways. It made me realize that most people will not care about your problems as long as their life is fine and a saying that comes to me is "out of sight, out of mind." That quote was exactly what was occurring with people who had only heard about it and not seen what I had saw. This made me beyond angry and disappointed in the human race because we will care and help for awhile and then put the people in our own country on the back burner. Don't get me wrong there were some very positive things that came about which included the Mahoney-Schneider family. I have never seen a family so strong, they almost had everything completely wiped away but still smile through it all. They are still rebuilding as much as they can and it was very inspiring to see a family such as this, they had not lost hope. They also had opened their home up to volunteers they had never met before and provided meals to us, by Day 2 we were family and it had become my second home.
                 We went on through the Rockaways helping people by digging out alley ways, yards, doing demolition, dry locking, putting up insulation, and doing anything that we were asked to do.  Team Delta and Team JetBlue also built a fence on Day 3 along with Mike and two other volunteers by the name of Ryan and Myles. Ryan and Myles were awesome, they were just walking down the beach and asked us did we need help, they helped in every way they could to get to the goal of building this fence. This in a way made me realize there are other people who want to help and that not all hope was lost in the human race, some people just don't know what is going on and we need to get the word out there.
                 I personally have other aspirations and hopes in life than being a professional volunteer but I definitely see why people aspire to do that job. It is definitely necessary and needed in today's society. I plan to make volunteering a part of my life because if nobody else will do it I will. This trip to the Rockaways just showed me that other people in the world need help and we as people should be willing to help as much as we can when there is devastation and any other way. When volunteering, it should be a selfless act and just do it as you see fit to do because it is helps others to realize all hope is not lost.
                In today's society, people dedicate their time to a lot of things besides volunteering. Most 20 year olds put time in things other than volunteering, no matter how important it is. For me, this trip to the Rockaways helped me to balance the important and not-so-important factors in life. Also, it helped me realize that my time is important and it needs to go to important things throughout life. I can't wait to visit the Rockaways again and to give my time to restoring my home away from home. It was inspiring to help people in their of need and to just make a difference in someone's life. My heart truly belongs to the Rockaways. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Road Back to Rockaways

My Return to Rockaways:

The Road Back:
   I have previously documented the process of what it was like to organize my return trip back to the Rockaways, but a little re-cap is needed. The process of trying to acquire donation items, tickets, and volunteers was both extremely rewarding and the biggest test of patience I've had to endure thus far (proving how lucky of a life I have and how thankful I should be). Oh, did I mention this was all taking place during finals?
  Ok, but really, some days were amazingly productive and we had so much information pouring in that it was difficult to keep it all straight. And then some days, I would tweet, and message, and plead with the internet gods to bring me some good news and still nothing would happen. I think that even if there were an instruction manual for organizing these types of things it would just read "Just roll with whatever comes your way ... and keep going" because that's about all you can do.

   Details weren't concrete until around 3 or 4 days before we were supposed to leave and when I say details, I mean flight tickets. This was beyond a doubt the hardest part. Luckily, I had an amazing friend step forward who donated my tickets when our Delta connections fell through (the donor wants to remain anonymous but they really should let me brag about them, I think). And then, much like they always do when it comes to volunteer work, things just started magically falling into place at the very, very last second. I cannot stress this enough, things did magically work out but the secret to that magic was  the generosity of some amazing people (Betty Jensen, Dennis Saleeby, and Alison Thompson) and the persistent chant of "No volunteer left behind!".

The Team's Story of getting to Rockaways:
  I would like to take this time to just say how incredibly proud and honored I was that three other people trusted in what I was doing enough to join my efforts up in New York. Angie, Jingo, and Demetria showed such faith by following my lead and pledging to go along on the trip. Each volunteer showed courage and bravery in their own way because every person had something to overcome before coming on the journey.

  Angie paid for her own ticket with the prize money she received from filling out a survey from her apartment complex! She could have very easily used that money to go shopping or purchase something special for herself. Instead, she used that money to go towards plane tickets to go volunteer.  That kind of selfless mentality is so unique and we were so blessed to have her on our team.

    Jingo is a foreign exchange student from Taiwan who has been in America for only four months and decided to come volunteer up in New York with us. I had bumped into her on my way to talk with Betty Jensen (the International Student Organization [ISO] coordinator) and told Jingo what the plans were for New York were and before I knew it, she was in! Thankfully, Betty Jensen is an amazing educational administrator who encourages her students to follow their passions. Betty donated Delta flight miles to Jingo so that she could come volunteer with us. But the courage it takes to get on a plane and fly to New York in a country where she's been living for only four months is incredible! She showed such compassion for people that she didn't even know yet and I am so happy that we had the 'by chance' encounter that brought you to the Rockaways!

    Demetria received a 'less than enthusiastic' reaction when she told her family about her intentions in going up to volunteer. When it became apparent that our tickets weren't going to be coming from our 'connections' at Delta, the situation turned into an incredibly stressful evening. There were phone calls, tears, and a lot of cursing but Demetria always kept looking me in the eye and saying "I want to go". For as long as she kept saying "I want to go" I kept telling her "You're going to go. We'll find a way". Despite everything she was going through, she never lost focus and always persevered. After that nail-biting night, we were put in touch with the absolutely groovy Dennis Saleeby who generously donated tickets to Demetria, alongside Alison Thompson.

    Again, I would like to thank you three ladies for showing such trust and faith in letting me lead a team of some of the most intelligent, hard working, and determined people I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. Every single one of you has taught me so much and I am thankful for being a part of such an incredible journey. Each person brought something much needed and equally beautiful to the team, which truly can never be duplicated. I have endless amounts of love and respect for all of you.

The next installment will be about our time up there and all the adventures we had!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

An Update Since Coming Back to Florida

               It was clear to me before even leaving New York that my volunteer efforts were going to continue when I got back to Florida, and so they have. Since coming back to Florida I have started the Rockaway Relief Fundraiser which lists the donation needs of the residents that I am in direct contact with in Rockaways on an event page on Facebook and acts as a forum for people to discuss the issues at hand in Rockaways. The accessibility to see what items are being requested enables those who are interested in donating to asses for themselves which items they think they can contribute. We have recently started a Paypal account for those people who wish to donate money online as well.
              The Rockaway Relief Fundraiser also includes the Amazon Wish Lists of two Rockaway families who are in need of help to provide Christmas presents for their children. These are families who are used to being able to provide Christmas for their kids but due to Sandy, have been struggling (financially and mentally) to just get back to their normal lives, let alone prepare for the madness that is the Holiday Season. In particular, Christine (a mother of two children under the age of 10) had completed her holiday shopping 3 months before Sandy hit and, like all parents, hid the presents in a place where the kids wouldn't find them: the basement. Unfortunately, during Sandy the entire basement flooded and destroyed all the Christmas presents which were already paid for. Imagine doing and paying for all the Holiday shopping for your family and then all that effort and money gets washed away in an instant! When Christine was explaining to me how she didn't know how she was going to be able to give her kids the Christmas they are expecting my heart just broke.
        It wasn't just the story that got to me, but also the look on her face, the strain in her voice as if even she couldn't really wrap her brain around the whole situation. It's hard to pin-point exact moments from my time in Rockaways because the whole experience was so fast-paced but that conversation has stuck with me and has become a source of inspiration for me to push the limits of what I can do to help the people of Rockaways.
                Through the Rockaway Relief Fundraiser we now are able to donate much needed items to the Rockaways community and we have also been able to connect generous people from around the country to families in need. People like Cynthia Ryan(D.C) and Sandra Tribioli(FL) have stepped up and donated items from the Amazon Christmas Wish Lists, which have made all the difference for these families.
             It was towards the beginning of the fundraiser that I received a message from a friend of mine that I had met at a Model United Nations (why yes, I am a geek) conference in New York around a year ago. Heather Huffman Ross messaged me saying that not only did she want to contribute to the fundraiser but she wanted to start one of her own where she lives. Did I mention she lives in Hawaii? Yeah, I know - I'm jealous too. So, now we've got donations coming into Rockaways from just about every corner of the United States thanks to people like Heather and Sandra who have stepped up.
            As a side note, due to the fact that Heather had so many items donated (the latest figures were 7 large bags of winter clothes and other items) the cost estimated to ship the items was $350.00 and that was a conservative estimate made by FedEx. Despite efforts to contact FedEx and FedEx Cares (a branch of the company dedicated to charity support) we still have not found a way to ship these items for a lower price.  However, we are optimistic that we will be able to contact someone, somewhere in a shipment company who will allow her to ship these items at a discounted rate or for free.
                 The amazing responses that have occurred since first sharing my story through the blog and starting the Rockaway Relief Fundraiser have been staggering. We started out with roughly around 100 people being invited to the event and now there are over 1,500 people invited. I could have never imagined starting something with over 1,500 people at least being made aware of its existence. It is incredible to me how many people have reached out to become involved in something that started out so small.
             Not only is it the quantity of people reaching out but also the quality of people willing to offer advice, donate, and lend their voice to a cause. Specifically, people like Wendy Tarlow,  Melissa Ann Mitchell, Melissa Berman, Sandra Tribioli, Betty Jensen, Doug Kuntz, and Alison Thompson who have all given either time, money, or support, although often it's all three. I cannot speak highly enough of these individuals who, despite having lives of their own, decided to become involved to help a complete stranger achieve success in a passion project.
           Alison Thompson has been working tirelessly up in Rockaways and yet has somehow found the time to be a fantastic mentor AND has been in talks with people within Delta to see if they can donate tickets to our volunteers going up to NY from FL. Such selflessness is rarely found and has made all the difference in so many lives.
          With how frequently these newly found friends have left me speechless because of their seemingly limitless generosity, it 's a wonder as to how my face isn't stuck in a permanent state of shock. In all sincerity, each one of you has been a source of encouragement, inspiration, and comfort during this time. From the bottom of my heart I would like to thank all of you and I mean it when I say that you now hold a very special place in my life.
                I'm also very pleased to report that as of right now we have four volunteers (including myself) who have pledged themselves to volunteer up in Rockaways over winter break! Angelina Stafford, Demetria Jackson, and Jingo Huang are college students who will be bringing much needed volunteer work to the people of Rockaways. I am so excited for them to be able to share their time and enthusiasm with the residents, volunteers, and community of Rockaway, NY.
             I should also mention that Sarah Murphy will be joining the volunteer effort while we're in NY. I met Sarah while volunteering on Thanksgiving Day over at St. Francis on 129th st. and somehow she stumbled across my story online and found me on Facebook!
            It is my hope that while in New York this time we are able to assist the Mahoney-Schneider family (as well as other families) and work alongside other great volunteer groups such as East End Cares. We hope to be leaving as soon as Dec. 16 and stay through Dec. 22nd and have already made arrangements for housing. We are keeping our fingers crossed in regards to the tickets being provided by Delta, but also have back-up plans in case things don't work out with them.
                With all of this wonderful progress being made, on top of it being the week before finals, there has been little to no time to sit and reflect upon everything that's going on. However, there have been two instances that made me pause and feel an overwhelming sense of purpose.
               The first was when I was writing a paper at 3:00AM (because yes, I am a procrastinator when it comes to papers) and I happened to glance at my Facebook while taking a mental break. I looked quickly and saw a photo of my dad giving his speech at my sister's wedding. For whatever reason this triggered such an emotional reaction within me that for the first time since starting this adventure I cried. I cried because I was so overwhelmed with gratitude for the support my parents have shown me. I cried because I missed staying up late talking ethics, religion, life, love, etc. with them and sharing in detail all the things going on in our lives.
              While taking the moment to feel whatever it was that I needed to feel, I had a moment of clarity. In this moment of clarity it hit me that one of the reasons why I volunteer is because when I look at the Mahoney-Schneider family I see parents much like my own and if what happened to them had happened to my family or friends I would want someone to step up and help. I would want someone to care for them, respect them, and bring them comfort when everything within their lives had been turned upside down. It was with this realization that I thought to myself what I now will use as a mantra to remind myself as to why we volunteer: "We volunteer because we can, for those who can't"
                The second instance happened just today. As I said before, I have met some of the most truly incredible people through volunteering and in particular, one such person is Wendy. Wendy contacted me through Facebook after hearing of my previous time spent in New York. She has encouraged me to push my expectations as to what I think I can accomplish. She also has had some wonderfully helpful ideas when it came to the fundraiser (Paypal was her idea) and has been a huge advocate for our volunteer efforts by lending her support at every crucial point. I have gone to her for advice and have found a wealth of knowledge and patience. She continues to be a source of inspiration for me.
            Today, however, she brought me to tears when she was once again lending her voice to support our cause and said "I hope my child grows up to be like Allison". Well, of course I just broke down immediately when I read that. This, above anything else that someone has said about me, means the most. It is, in my opinion, one of the highest honors that someone can give you. I only hope that my life and actions prove worthy of such a statement.

This is Matthew playing with his new Christmas train donated by Cynthia Ryan!

           I'll conclude this entry with the message that I am so excited to be going back to Rockaways this winter break. I look forward to seeing my New York family again, meeting everyone who has made such a difference while I've been back in Florida, and to working alongside some awesome volunteers! So, get ready, Rockaways! We're coming back STRONG and ready to tackle any task that comes our way! This team is going to show the strength of independent volunteers CAN make a difference!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Images from Rockaways

the McDonald's that had been looted

the destruction of Sandy

My New York family