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!