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!

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