In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Repair has sought to bring you stories from service superstars reflecting on their volunteerism. This week we are excited to feature a guest post by Avigail Hurvitz-Prinz, who volunteered at an evacuation shelter in the days immediately following the storm:

The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy is a bit hard to process, but I realized that some of my friends and family really didn’t understand what has been going on here so I’m going to do my best to share some of my thoughts and some of my ideas in order to give folks who aren’t right here (and even some of us who are) a bit of a chance to better understand what’s going on and even a bit more of a sense of how to help.

The actual Hurricane had only the smallest effect on me and mine — our internet went out, and the sound of the wind was terrifying but I went to sleep early and when I woke up in the morning and went outside it looked like we’d had a big storm, but the mat of (mostly green) leaves on the ground and a few downed branches on my block were the only signs that there’d been a storm. That first day after the storm became “hurrication,” particularly in my lovely neighborhood. With no transportation options open, and limited access to computer systems across the city, the day was devoted to walking around with friends, finding the spots that were open and drinking coffee in our regular cafes. The mood was joyous and celebratory, aware of how lucky we were. I ran into a bunch of my favorite neighbors and enjoyed the chance to sit with them and enjoy an extra day of vacation. It took me a couple days to begin to understand the desolation the storm had wrought. I still can’t really comprehend it.

On Thursday I got dressed to go to work, thinking that I was going to go to my placement. But, our computers were down and my supervisor couldn’t get into the office — so she suggested that I not come in. So, I ran back home and thanks to my roommate, got motivated to do some volunteering. I got some donations together of books and games and went to the evacuation center in my neighborhood. One of the best high schools in Brooklyn is in my neighborhood, Brooklyn Tech, and it has been turned into an evacuation shelter, particularly for nursing homes and adult home facilities in Coney Island and The Rockaways. For all of the challenges before these folks they have hot food, heat, hot water for showers, a safe place to sleep, and medical attention whenever they need it.

I went in to volunteer and waited for a while before a person asked me to join her in the gym. She explained quickly that she was a volunteer who was hoping to come back for another overnight shift, but that she’d already been dealing with a medical situation this morning. The folks in the gym where I spent most of my time were people who live in an adult home — most have pretty severe psychiatric diagnoses, are isolated and have very limited resources. In that room most of the people were ambulatory, but slow and often unsteady on their feet. The first thing I noticed when I went into the gym was the smell of a mass of humanity who haven’t been able to change clothes in days. The folks I met who’d been evacuated from the adult home reminded me of folks that I meet at my placement — people living on public assistance who are pretty slow moving – mentally and physically. Just like at my placement there’s a question about why that is — is it their negative symptoms of schizophrenia that I’m seeing? or is this a side effect of the meds they’re taking? or is this just boredom and not being engaged enough?

The gym was full of cots, I’d estimate about 175 in that one space. People are living their entire lives with no privacy, with no quiet, no pillow and one blanket. So my volunteer job that I appointed myself to do was to walk around slowly, making eye contact with the people who were awake. People would call me over occasionally to ask for water or coffee. Coffee was a bit of a challenge but, following the lead of the volunteer before me, i’d stealthily steal cups from the staff lounge. People requested 3, 4 even 6 sugars / sweeteners. It blew my mind a little bit, but the last thing I wanted to do was to be stingy with anything for these folks, given how few resources and pleasures they had. Which isn’t to say that I don’t have complicated feelings about this.

But back to the context. For whatever reason, those places on Coney Island weren’t evacuated until the water was literally coming into their buildings. Their staff of nurses had been with them since the evacuation and hadn’t been home to their families or on a real break since their arrival. They were exhausted and grumpy, and one of the first task I put myself on was trying to figure out how to help them. This ultimately meant finding snacks, juices and sugar for coffees for the nurses and trying to get them to smile.

Over the 10 or so hours that I volunteered over two days I had some of the following interactions:

  • A evacuee I’ll call Phil (age 64) serenaded me multiple times (some songs he wrote and a rendition of New York, New York and Maria), shared his diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, told me about missing his wife who’s been dead for a few years and also about the abuse he suffered in childhood. I took him “shopping” in the clothing donations and helped him find clean socks, underwear and some warm clothes. He drinks his coffee with 4 sugars and spends most of his social security checks buying cigarettes and coffee for friends. He was warm and visibly excited to see me each time I came to visit.
  • Another evacuee named Margie was separated from her group and had difficulty walking through the building to find them. She sent me out looking — and I was happy to help but spent about an hour trying to track them down (unsuccessfully). After about another hour of work I managed to confirm that they were still there and even talk to one of the shelter staff about her situation and change her misspelled name in the center’s database. She seems to have a tough life and was probably recently homeless and living in a long-term shelter. We exchanged little notes written on scraps of paper. An except from the one she wrote to me …yes, these are trying times but your sincerity really lifted my spirits…
  • This one’s gonna be in Jewish code — I’ll translate with more details for you in another email if you want. In talking to some of the residents from the adult home it seemed like the orthodox Jews weren’t eating the non-kosher food they were being served — which means days of subsisting on fruit and carrots and yogurt. I did some asking around and got a little bit of kosher food delivered to them thanks to a local Chabad rabbi and his networks. I did not manage to get a particular evacuee a chumash, though thanks to friends of mine we did get him bsamim for havdallah. So when I saw him preparing to do the ritual I asked him if I could join — and he said yes. So this old, browbeaten, isolated and ill ultra-Orthodox guy made havdallah for me. Using the spices and the grape juice I had managed to get for him. He had no idea what to make of me in my jeans, but I felt like I really had done a real chesed for him. I can’t think of another context where we’d have any interaction as positive as that one, but after havdallah I wished him a shavuah tov and started to walk away when he called me back to say “a gut voch.”

I’ve never done crisis work before — and I feel blessed to have been a little bit prepared for it by Social Work School. I feel a lot of security in the choice that I made to do this program — and that those skills of helping people connect with resources have never been more useful.

I have been having real feelings — guilt, anger, frustration, pride, joy, and then back around to guilt, anger, frustration, pride, joy and on and on. It has been incredibly important to me in the last few days to try to hold contradictions in mind …eilu v’eilu…

I am incredibly lucky and blessed. My friends, my family are safe and sound and healthy. We were, at worst, inconvenienced. And, many of my people are at their best right now. I’m inspired by my two closest tribes — the Jewish community and my friends in Brooklyn. I’m inspired by their efforts. I also observe that the people who are best mobilized are plugging into community organizations that are expert organizers (like synagogues, churches and Occupy).

It hardly conveys how much hard work they’ve done, but I know that they have:

  • bought and distributed cold weather clothes,
  • biked supplies to distant locations that are difficult to reach due to gas shortages,
  • worked overnight volunteer shifts at evacuation shelters,
  • planned benefit concerts,
  • baked treats for volunteers,
  • delivered supplies to homebound seniors,
  • and just generally behaved with true menchlichkeit.

That said, there is so much need. It is hard to comprehend from our safe homes. It is also totally mind-blowing to think about how physically close the destruction is. But most of the people I know have resources and can do much to share them. Not just today, but in the long aftermath of the storm.

Some people feel confused about how to give, or guilty that they aren’t able to give enough. I want to put myself out there as a resource to help you talk through some of your ideas and work towards finding you ways to plug in. I imagine there could be some small way of contributing to the relief efforts in a way that makes sense for you. It could be as simple as donating a bit of time or money to Occupy Sandy, or following the posts on Congregation Beth Elohim’s facebook page for up to date information about needs they’ve identified or donating blood in NYC or nationally. Nechama is coordinating cleanup efforts in the NJ Jewish community. If you just have a bit of cash you can buy supplies on this Amazon registry that will be shuttled out to places that need them.

Even though the storm hit the East Coast almost three months ago, so many people continue to suffer. The sites listed above remain great resources to find ways to participate in the relief effort, and new ways to help as needs continue to develop every day. I’m thrilled that so many people have been able to chip in as individuals — but this truly is a national disaster, and deserves a national response. So, don’t forget to continue to help to preserve our country’s commitment to real people, who depend on each other for support in good times and in hard times.

Sending love from Brooklyn,

Avigail