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.


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