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

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Rockaways Thanksgiving 2012

To all who want to volunteer but think they can't,
 You can.

  My name is Allison Rodgers and I am currently a college student who had the good fortune of hearing Alison Thompson speak about the disaster in Rockaways, NY. I originally heard about Hurricane Sandy on the news and then like the rest of the country focused my attention on the elections. Coming from Florida I've seen hurricanes, some worse than others, and thought that Sandy would be just like the others here in Florida; a tree here, a power-line there, no big deal ... I was so wrong.
   When Alison Thompson was describing what Rockaways looked like, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Phrases such as "Armageddon", " like a bomb went off", and "total destruction" kept being repeated and somewhere in the midst of her presentation I decided I was going to at least see if I could go.  Thankfully, my parents were very generous because as soon as I described what was going on and that I wanted to go and help my dad started doing research on plane tickets to NY. So now there was really no turning back!
  The bus ride into Rockaways was shocking because I had never seen a U.S city look like a disaster zone. People of all ages, socioeconomic statuses, and other variants all had dollies stacked high with the most basic needs: blankets, water, canned food, etc.  I started to notice, though, the further along the bus ride went the more destruction I saw. Sides of the highway had debris and cars smashed together and everywhere you looked there was sand. In particular, I remember seeing a McDonald's that had been boarded up with the message "Nothing here to take ... Trust me save your energy ... Someone beat you here already" on the plywood covering the broken windows.  That's around the time that I started to realize that I was entering something really serious.
  Finally, I get to 129th St. Francis, which is where I was going to be doing my volunteer work. While everything else around it was destroyed (literally, there's two homes that burned down right next to it) the school/ church was a safe haven for locals. I saw smiles for the first time since entering Queens, there was music, there was the smell of delicious food ... but as a volunteer, this is where my real adventure started. I immediately started asking around for the names of people I was given to be in contact with. Eventually, I was given a job in the donation tent and got into contact with other volunteers. It was starting to get dark and I decided that I needed to find a place to stay within Rockaways so that I didn't have to keep doing the 3 hour route from Brooklyn (where I was crashing at a friend's) to  Rockaways for the rest of my time there. Somehow, a volunteer heard my story, found me and told me of a house where volunteers could stay (Karen from Slovenia, if you ever read this I cannot thank you enough because you introduced me to what I now consider my New York family)
  Karen and I knocked on the door and as soon as people came out we said that we were volunteers. Before I knew what was going on, I was being offered a complete Thanksgiving meal, a place to sit, and a place to sleep. I should mention that this was a home directly on the beach, where damage was the most severe. This family had been through hell, had their life torn apart and on Thanksgiving Day they gave a complete stranger a meal, excellent company, and a place to sleep. This, above all else, is what has made me believe in the magic of volunteering. It was complete fate, luck, whatever you want to call it, that this family and I found each other. What I'm starting to realize, though, is that this is what makes humanitarian causes work. If you show an effort to help or even a genuine willingness to show compassion someone will hear it.
  The fear and nervousness I had before leaving for New York is minute to the love and happiness that came from sharing four days out of my life (that would have included me sitting on my butt watching TV anyways) with the most amazing family. I ended up staying at that house for the remainder of my time in Rockaways but had I not stayed with that family, I am 100% certain that the other volunteers would have become my family or I would have found comradery with someone somewhere . The point being is that I have found  when people put themselves out there to help, there will always some form of response. From that response you will find friendship, love, and respect in abundance unlike anywhere else in your life. If you were ever thinking of volunteering but were stuck contemplating  the things you might 'lose'(money, time, etc), please re-evaluate and imagine the joy you will bring to those who need it most. I should clarify and say, you won't be bringing joy to those people - you will be sharing it with them. That's the best part! Volunteering is not a one-sided venture (not if you do it right, anyways). Get to know the people and chances are you'll end up feeling like they helped you just as much as you helped them.
 In particular, I would like to call upon my fellow 20 something-year-olds: We, more than anybody else have the freedom to give time and volunteer. We have energy, motivation, and skills in abundance - how else do you think we party so hard and ace that test the next morning?! Take some time, make some time, whatever you need to do and let's make a difference. Organize a donation fundraiser in your city or on your campus if there isn't already one and if there's already one get involved! The people you meet will be so much more worth your time than the people doing keg stands at your friend of a friend's party. Worried about what your parents will think if you say you want to take some time out of winter break to help volunteer? YOUR PARENTS WILL LOVE IT! Parents love knowing they raised a caring, thoughtful, and giving child. Plus, it gives them something to brag about at their next luncheon. Chances are, you could probably get them involved too. If they're worried about you missing out on time with them (which is understandable) then assure them that you'll be there for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, etc. but for two or three days out of a two and half week break you're going to go help fellow human beings. We can do this. We can help. We can watch Jersey Shore's last four episodes after we give a few days out of our year to make a difference (trust me, MTV will be playing those on repeat for a while). Let's do this! 

Specifically, I would like to give thanks to the family who took me in but will omit last names for privacy reasons: Christine, Leslie, Howard, Rochelle, Tim, Uncle James, Ren, Jeff,  Jillian, and Matthew - you have changed my life. The open and willing nature of your family to let me in has taken my breath away and I can guarantee you have made a friend for life.