Some of you know already that I volunteered at a Red Cross shelter on Long Island as part of the disaster relief efforts after the Hurricane Sandy (Monday, 10/29/2012). I’d like to share some of these experiences with you. You would hardly believe the pace of work at these places. Every moment is taken up by thinking and acting on a never ending list of items. I’m very glad I did this. I’m back home after almost three days, having taken a Long Island Rail Road train back to Jamaica station and the subway from there. I got to sleep three hours twice in that time. I could have gotten more, but one goes into some kind of adrenaline rush and mostly only sleeps when told to—a few times.
This shelter is located by Farmingville in a high school, and, on my first night there, received 100 clients from another shelter that had closed due to lack of electricity. That brought us up to about 230 in total at the time. The Red Cross (ARC) had prepositioned a container with supplies that Sunday, and we took cots, blankets, and many other useful items from there. Parents and residents from the community kept walking in with bags full of donations: clothes, diapers, soap, toiletries… we had boxes full of toiletry kits prepared by a Girl Scout troop, for example, and food was often donated from businesses nearby. This shelter will probably have to close on Sunday to make room for school starting again Monday, and they did not know where they’d be transferred to when I left. (*update: It did not move that weekend. Things change often.)
While I was there volunteers ran the entire site. Our managers were professionals with years of experience in emergency and disaster relief management, and the volunteers all did what they were best at. In training at the ARC in Manhattan we were told two indispensable things: 1. ‘Be flexible.’ 2. ‘Listen to them. It helps.’ —and it does: So many times our clients just stopped me, and told me their story. One could see their relief to share. I’ll add another, #3: ‘Let people be people.’ With so many quirky characters under one roof, the only thing one could do is just take them for who they were—people in need of help, who needed a place to sleep, food to eat, and a hot shower. Many of them had literally lost everything. Others just couldn’t stay at home for a while, because of a lack of electricity, and often because they were dependent on medical devices needing electricity, like oxygen machines.
I won’t go into detail on some of the bad luck that these folks have had. Needless to say, if one has to go to a shelter, it’s serious.
Because I was rushing almost everything I did, the pictures are somewhat below my usual quality photography.
I was made aware of this need for volunteers by a friend. She forwarded me the information, because I asked and she’s connected to the ARC in Manhattan. I signed up on Tuesday, showed up for training on Wednesday morning ready and packed for three days, as the email had asked, and was in a van with four others out to Long Island that same afternoon.
There’s an ARC coordination center somewhat east of New York from where we were sent to where the need was greatest. More volunteers from Americorps, Stony Brook University, Jetblue and others arrived on Thursday and brought much needed help to the team, and we finally had enough people to do the work. A bus from the SPCA housing the animals/pets arrived on Thursday as well and the pet owners got to spend time with their animals. Ambulances and paramedics from Ohio and Alabama were kept at the school to provide extra medical coverage, beside the nurse, who was sent home and replaced after 48 hours of straight work. The school’s custodians helped us 24 hours a day with facilities, and police officers kept the peace.
The staff and clients started working together very quickly to manage events like putting together 100 beds. One kid really stood out. He helped like a champion with anything he could. I’ll call him Brian and he celebrated his 16th birthday in that shelter. The school’s custodians found out and got him a cake. The ARC’s policy is to never abandon people, but the goal really is to get people connected to their relatives and back on the way to get back to their lives.
One senior lady was there, because she needed electricity for her medical device (oxygen, in her case), and I often just called her Sweetheart. I was glad to see that she was picked up before I left. There were about 5 babies, 25 kids, and the rest were adults. The kids were kept with their parents/parent in a separate gymnasium in the school, next to the gymnasium housing adults and one of our goals was to create routines, so that everyone had some structure to their time there. If they needed something and we had it, it was theirs.
Ok, I’m exhausted and on my way to a full night’s sleep, after a great, warm, homemade dinner.
This was an amazing and moving experience, and I thanked the ARC that they let me do it. Please consider making a small donation to www.redcross.org.
Hope you’re all well, and thanks for listening.
If you have questions, comment or email, and I’ll fill in whatever I may have forgotten to mention. You can connect with me on LinkedIn with a quick search for my name, as well. Needless to say, these are my views and I don’t speak for the ARC.
Michael Spieth is a graduate of the Advanced Certificate in Project Management program at CUNY School of Professional Studies.