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Hello friends,

I am writing to tell you about a Red Cross volunteer day to Far Rockaway, Queens, which you’ve probably heard about. The story of my last stint at the shelter in Long Island was posted on the CUNY SPS Community Blog, and I thank them for their initiative. It may also be on the Red Cross blog soon.

This stretch of land, Far Rockaway, is a peninsula on the south end of Queens/Long Island, just south of JFK airport, which was right in Sandy’s way and still has widespread power outages and fuel shortages.

The New York Red Cross organized a volunteer effort to cover some of the most affected areas, which are basically the last pockets without power. There is an info-graphic that compares three recent major storms.

This was also an interesting day. We met up with our Red Cross (ARC) friend and headed down to Floyd Bennett airfield where the National Guard, FEMA, ARC, etc., have set up with fuel tanker trucks, trailers, mass kitchens from the Southern Baptists, and so on. Anne and I were with an ARC member and we set out ahead of the volunteer bus to find the location where we were to meet the food trucks, and to let folks in the area know there would be hot food.

The drive to Far Rockaway over the bridge from the airfield was an eye-opener. Even big trees had toppled and the storm’s winds had spread the sand from the beach from the waterfront up to a few hundred yards inland. Written on a boarded-up McD’s was: “Nothing here 2 take. U R 2 late.” Some commentary on night-time activity. Smashed car windows told the same story.

People in those neighborhoods were tending to their homes, generating piles of rubble that sanitation crews were picking up here and there. Some streets were closed to traffic entirely, because of downed trees, downed cables, trash, or rubble. Utility crews, said to come from all over the country, were all throughout the neighborhood, working on power lines and assessing damage. Some unfortunate neighborhoods will always be the last to have services restored.

Much of the dislocation comes from the associated effects of not having power—no heat, communications, spoiled food, trash piling up, lack of fuel, totaled cars everywhere… The area has been without power since the storm 18 days ago, when the ocean water, 4 to 6 feet deep, rushed in and destroyed any electrical circuit it met—in cars, in fuse boxes on houses, street lights, garages. Generators were around by buildings, work sites, and on main streets and corners. Lines of hundreds waited in long lines for fuel trucks, carrying gas cans to fill up their cans and generators, all overseen by police officers.

We found that a church close by had clothing donation and distribution going on, and found people charging their phones on generators. The food trucks arrived soon, run by volunteers from California, Virginia, and other places. People soon started queuing up for a hot meal ready to go, but that didn’t compare to when the next truck, carrying a load of clean-up kits, diapers, and over 900 comfort kits (containing a blanket, flash light, batteries, wipes, hand sanitizer, hand warmers, and more) arrived. Since we had walked the neighborhood, we easily found three apartment complexes that lacked generators and the kits found their way into the crowds in less than an hour. Here a word about the volunteers. They came from schools and companies all over town and formed instant teams for canvassing, food prep, handing out supplies, and did it all with a compassionate and positive attitude.

There were bright spots. Some houses had remained dry and people had taken in others who had no place to go. Sometimes we were told that things were fine, or that neighbors were helping each other by sharing a generator. In another back yard we found a guy with a beer and a hearty “who cares”-laugh barbecuing.

The whole effort will have gone on for a few more days after the first one on Saturday, which we were part of. I am thankful for getting a chance to help, and that leads me, with a little smile, to a good opportunity to mention that a small donation to the Red Cross is a very easy and helpful way to support disaster relief, not just here, but all over the country.

One more thought. After Katrina hit New Orleans it became public knowledge that in a situation like this people really need to be prepared to get by on their own for 72 hours. Please consider checking a preparedness web site to make a plan. They say hindsight is 20/20, but sucks nonetheless, if enjoyed from a raft.

Best, as always,

Mike

PS: As always, these views are my own and do not reflect the views or positions of any other party, directly, or otherwise.

Michael Spieth is a graduate of the Advanced Certificate in Project Management program at CUNY School of Professional Studies.

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Hello friends,

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.

Best,

Michael Spieth

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.

A couple of friends and I were mistaken for vagabonds one time because we were gathering up our change to get on the bus and we happened to be disabled. This is actually a common occurrence because people with disabilities are often subjects to be pitied and their abilities are underestimated. In this blog, I’m going to challenge that notion.

I went to an interview for a part-time job for graduate students at Hunter College this week. This particular job involved working with statistics, and databases, so I was a little scared that I’d be at a disadvantage because I’d require assistive technology to be able to perform my duties for this position. Even though an employer is required to make their workplace environment accessible for people with disabilities, it’s still not a common thing. Because assistive technology can cost up to and even more than $1,000, it’s too easy for employers to say that they have more qualified candidates in order to avoid paying this steep fee. That was my first concern when I was applying for the job.

My second concern was that the interviewer wouldn’t consider me as a serious candidate for the position because of my disability. I decided to apply anyway without disclosing my disability. I figured no one discloses their race, gender, or sexuality when applying for a job so why should I disclose my disability. They’ll eventually find out when they see me anyway.

I have experience using Microsoft Excel, Access and conducting research as well. These were the main qualifications that the employer was looking for so I felt confident when I was applying. I emailed my resume and within a couple of days I heard back from the interviewer. She said that she was impressed with my resume and asked me to come in for an interview.

On Monday I went to the interview. While I was confident of my abilities, I was once again skeptical of the way I would be perceived because of my disability. I’ve gotten some pretty shocking reactions in the past. I once volunteered  to clean up Coney Island. When I showed up my team manager was clearly not prepared to manage someone like me. At first he refused to let me pick out the shrubs and weeds with the rest of the volunteers. He claimed that it was for my own safety. I immediately recognized that I was just a liability in his eyes and that he didn’t want this “fragile” person to get hurt from the deadly weeds of Coney Island. I tried to reassure him that I would be ok but he insisted that I just stand there and hold the garbage bag open for the volunteers that were doing the real work.

I was not yet defeated though. I decided to hold the garbage bag from the outside of the garden. I then slowly started picking up whatever weeds I could find on the outskirts of the garden. I talked to the other volunteers and we started working together. They would let me know if any areas looked unsafe and eventually I was picking out weeds with the best of them. He didn’t say anything to me after that. Hopefully I changed his mind and the next volunteer will have  a more welcoming experience.

I’m not writing this story to gloat or to boast over my triumph against ignorance. My point is that going into this interview I was prepared for the worst. Because of my previous experiences I expected that I would have to once again prove myself to those who think I am incapable of functioning like everyone else. Fortunately, my interviewer was aware and educated about people with disabilities so my interview wasn’t about myself proving that I’m equal to my sighted counterparts. It was about me proving that I’m the most qualified candidate for the job which is the way it should be. She only asked one question about my disability which is how I am able to use a computer. I informed her of a screen reading software called Jaws. She asked me where she can purchase it and that was the end of that subject. Needless to say, the interview was a success. The interviewer told me that she will no longer interview anyone else and that when the position is available I can have it. So there you have it. Blind people can work. That is if society lets them. Good luck with the end of the semester and remember. The next time you see a person with a disability hanging out in the street or park don’t assume that they’re accepting donations.

Walei is pursuing a masters in Disability Studies in the School of Professional Studies. He has blogged for the Accessible New York project in the past and continues to do so. Walei is also an aspiring writer, musician, and advocate for people with disabilities.