Hurricane Sandy Relief: Volunteers Come From Near and Far

Volunteer teams from other areas of New York and out-of-state continue to help in the New York Annual Conference relief effort. Here are thoughts from three teams about their work experience:

Amanda Shenk / Shenandoah University, Winchester, Va.

As spiritual life coordinator at United Methodist-affiliated Shenandoah University, Shenk came with a team of mostly students to Staten Island in early January. The group had trained as an early response team in November and was scheduled to go to North Carolina to help with Hurricane Irene repairs.

“But with the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, we decided to make the trip north once the open invitation for ERTs was sent out,” Shenk wrote in an email from the school in Winchester, Va.

“We were surprised by the fact that there was so much damage and there is still so much to do just to clean up, and this event is already out of the media,” Shenk noted. “There are still police on patrol in most damaged areas and a local food mission is still serving three hot meals a day.

“What I will remember most is the idea that when people gather together for a just cause and with a loving heart they can accomplish anything.”

The team worked with several homeowners and got to know two families very well.

“We even invited them for dinner at the church where we were staying,” Shenk wrote. “We cooked dinner for them and their families, and we felt so blessed to be a ray of hope to them, since they were so inspirational to us.”

John Kerastas / First UMC, Evanston, Ill.

Kerastas was part of a four-person team led by his pastor, Rev. Jane Cheema. They made the trip to Brooklyn for a number of reasons.

“First, we have felt a call to provide a “caring Christian presence” in the wake of a natural disaster,” Kerastas wrote in an email. “We also have the time and skill set that we thought could help. We heard about your ERT invitation through the North Central Jurisdiction.”

His veteran team, which included three members who are ERT certified, has relief and renovation experience in Kentucky, Louisiana and Virginia. They were a bit surprised by their assignment in Brooklyn.

“We expected to be working on individual homes,” Kerastas wrote. “Instead we mucked out the basement of a Seventh-day Adventist church, and did demo at a Baptist church. It was clear, though, that our contributions were greatly appreciated. And, as you might expect, we felt we received more than we gave.”

Working in a very cramped, dark and moldy basement crawl space was quite challenging for the group, but they persevered.

“The people we met couldn’t have been more gracious or welcoming or genuine,” Kerastas noted. “As a show of appreciation, one parishioner took us on a ‘behind-the-scenes’ tour of the New York subway system’s 60-acre repair shop – which was wonderful.”

Tom Matthews / Livingston Cares and SUNY-Geneseo

As associate dean of leadership and service at Geneseo, Tom Matthews knows what it takes to get college students to volunteer for disaster relief projects. Students from the university have made 26 trips to Biloxi, Miss., to assist in the rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.

With many students from Long Island and the metropolitan area, it seemed obvious that a team would travel to Staten Island, one of the hardest-hit areas in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. Twenty students and staff members worked to gut nine homes in New Dorp Beach, Ocean Breeze, and Oakwood Beach for five days in mid-January. The volunteers are part of a larger group called Livingston Cares, which encompasses SUNY Geneseo and Livingston County.

Livingston Cares was formed post-Katrina as a non-profit public charity that would join together the resources of the college and the community to offer broad-based assistance. That organization made a 10-year commitment to help in Biloxi.

The group received work assignments on Staten Island through Pastor Matt Schaeffer at Bethel UMC, and stayed at the Joan and Alan Bernikow Jewish Community Center in Sea View. Matthews, who has worked with the United Methodist Church in his trips to Biloxi, had faith that all the details would work out.

“There’s a certain trust (in traveling on relief trips) it will all work out because of our connection with the United Methodist Church,” he said. Livingston Cares will be back with another group of 28 people during spring break, and another 14 are already scheduled for May.

“The students are great,” Matthews said. “They always do a terrific job.”


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