I was a participant on an Alternative Winter Break Program to New York City to volunteer to help clean up homes that were damaged by Hurricane Sandy. The trip was organized by the Hillel at the University of Illinois, IsraAid, NECHAMA, Schusterman Hillel, and the UJA-Federation of New York and in total lasted a week. Even though the experience was only a week long, what I learned and was exposed to will be with me the rest of my life.
We brought a group of four students and one staff member on this trip. Brian, our staff, Gideon, Jamie, Tori, and I all participated in the clean up process. We worked under Habitat for Humanity to fix the damaged houses. The individuals in our group were very diverse. We worked alongside Israelis from IsraAid as well as students from many different Hillels along the East Coast. The students and Israelis had all come to New York City to help families which needed us.
I worked on two houses during my time in New York. On the first day of work, I worked on a house in the Rockaways. This house looked in nearly perfect shape on the outside, but when we entered it was obvious that this house was in terrible shape. The inside of the house had already been completely gutted. The only identifiable parts of the walls were the studs marking the different rooms. The floor, in the places where there was a floor, was all wooden planks. We spent the day at this house putting the finishing touches on the end of the demolition of this house. I spent most of my time lifting up layers of flooring in one of the backrooms along with the front entrance to the house. This was very hard work and I gave all I had to complete the job fully. This was the most difficult job for me on this trip but I believe I enjoyed it the most. My back was constantly hurting as I needed to bend down often, along with using all of my muscles to remove each nail from the wooden floor to remove a piece. I pushed myself and completed it.
The other house that I worked at was in Breezy Point. Every single house in the area was affected severely by the hurricane. The house we arrived at had not been touched since the storm hit. There was furniture everywhere, desks in the bedrooms, and even a toothbrush still hanging up in the bathroom. There was mold all over the house, and everything was still wet. The first step in repairing the house was to remove everything and place it in a pile to be removed. This was most of my job because I could carry the heavy bags of garbage along with couches and tables. The water in the objects made this task become very unique and challenging. The next task involved removing the drywall and flooring, as they were covered in mold from all of the water in the house. By the time we were all done with this house the place was bare and empty.
Being exposed to the damage first-hand was a remarkable experience. I had no connection with anyone who had their house damaged in New York City, but I was glad to be there. The trip was physically demanding, but rewarding. We did our job and helped many families during our weeklong trip. The homeowner of the first house I worked in came by and thanked all of us sincerely for our help. It made me very proud of what I was doing and thankful for what I have because she had nothing, not even a house.
The five of us representing the University of Illinois became very close throughout this trip. Brian, Gideon, Jamie, Tori and I worked hard each day and worked as a team. I am very thankful to be able to participate in an experience like this, and I hope many people can travel to New York City to help. More volunteers are always needed. These houses and homeowners need as much help as possible. Please go and help. The reward will not only benefit the homeowners, but the experience will change a person’s life.
I remember one day walking away from one of the houses to our car as our workday was concluding. There were two men in a truck from New York City. One of them asked me out his window, “Where is your group from?” I replied, “The University of Illinois.” To which he said, “Thanks for coming out and helping rebuild.” I finished our conversation by saying, “We’re glad to help. We only wish we could do more.”
What if this destruction had happened to my family’s belongings? What if my house was destroyed? I hope volunteers would rush to help my family like I traveled to help families in New York City.
by Robbie Schnitzer