Superstorm Sandy: A Volunteer’s Experience

A week after Superstorm Sandy hit the Tri-State area, I spent a day volunteering in the Far Rockaways with an organization called New York Cares. I was assigned to a makeshift distribution center where people affected by the storm could come and get food, water and other provisions. Supplies came from FEMA (water), the military (MREs or “meals ready to eat”), private companies, individuals, and even the New York City Marathon, which donated ponchos that would have been given to runners at the finish line.

We set up shop on a playground near public housing and large apartment complexes that were still standing after the storm. The people we were there to help were still without power and in many cases, without heat. Some - mostly elderly or disabled people - were still stuck or trapped on higher floors because the elevators were not running; thankfully they were not rendered homeless by the storm. 

I was interested to see what items were the most in demand, and which were the most useful to the people we were there to help. I’ve compiled a list below.

My observations reinforced something I’ve always heard: Clothing donations are not helpful at a time like this. It just creates more work in terms of sorting. And it pulls workers from more important jobs, to sift through the (often useless) things that people have donated. I love this NY Magazine article, sent to me by one of my fellow volunteers, titled: Sandy is Not an Excuse to Clean Out Your Closet. 

I was assigned to sort through piles of clothing donations and, I must say, I was almost offended by some of what I saw: sundresses, underwear, a Halloween costume, and …. high heels. Seriously? People who were just hit by a devastating storm do not need your high heels! It would be better to send these things to Goodwill or another place that is equipped to sort through it. Speaking to a Salvation Army employee who was working alongside me, confirmed my thinking on this. She said, “Underwear -even children’s underwear - is garbage.”  Unless it is brand new, never worn, and still has tags on it.

Moms and Dads, If you really want to clean out your kids’ closet, you could try a service like thredup; you can send in your clothes, get a credit and then donate it. The best way to really help these folks is to give money to reputable organizations that can put it to best use, satisfying the immediate need for that particular group.  

Some used clothing items that were in demand that day: warm coats, hats, scarves, warm gloves and mittens…

Here is a list of other things that people delighted in seeing in our distribution center:

  • NEW socks - Someone donated a giant box of brand new socks from Costco; they went immediately. 
  • NEW gloves 
  • Dog food - People were so excited to receive dog food, it’s something I hadn’t thought of, but of course, it is needed.
  • Bleach and other cleaning supplies
  • Diapers! Diapers! Diapers! New boxes, all different sizes (One way to donate diapers is through Diapers.com.)
  • Infant formula 
  • Baby Wipes
  • Baby food - (Someone donated a bunch of jars of prunes, not exactly what you want to feed your kid when your toilet doesn’t flush and the sanitation trucks aren’t picking up your garbage.)
  • New blankets 
If you are looking for a way to help the victims of Superstorm Sandy, the American Red Cross is a good place to start.
And here, from the City of New York, is a list of ways to volunteer your time, donate items and make sure 100% of your financial contributions get to those in need.

- Dawn Siff, Parenticity