Sunday, November 11, 2012

Hurricane Sandy - What Volunteering Should Mean

As many of you know I live in Brooklyn, New York. It is no secret that this area as well as many others in New York and New Jersey were hit very hard by this storm. My family and I were very fortunate and did not experience any of the effects of the storm because our neighborhood is one of the ones located on the highest points in our area. After the storm left our area, we all went out and inspected our neighborhood to make sure that no one in our area had been hurt or needed help clearing debris or fixing anything. Once we all realized how little we had been affected our focus was turned toward our neighboring communities to see who needed help and what we could possibly do to make sure that people had basic needs. It was only then that we realized how truly lucky we were.

The devastation on so may places around us has been tremendous. To this day there are still people who do not have electricity, which has been a challenge with the onslaught of cold weather we experienced just a few days after the storm. Many of us in the unaffected areas have been going out to volunteer at shelters at churches and pretty much any place where there are people who need help making it through the aftermath of Sandy. While most of my experiences have been wonderful and the attitude of the people has been loving and empathetic, I have also witnessed some distressful behavior on the part of some people who are supposedly there to "help". I am not referring to the opportunists and scam artists (they are in their own category of disgusting), but rather those who misunderstand what it means to be a volunteer. I am not one to delve on stereotypes because I hate when people are pigeonholed into a particular group. However, that being said I have developed a distaste for those who chose to fit the mold of the hipster. These are the people I have a gripe about today because they are the ones from whom I witnessed some of the most utterly disgusting behavior while my husband, my daughter and I went out to volunteer yesterday. The reason I am disgusted with these people's behavior is because they seem to be missing one of the main qualities you have to posses in order to be able to help people. Empathy.

Yesterday I saw two sides to the story unfolding before me. I was in a place where there are housing projects with people who live the day to day with the bare minimum. I saw people in need, who are used to being disregarded and who when offered help feel that they need to be forceful in order to get the things they need. I understand their forcefulness because I could see that they thought that if they did not take the opportunity to grab what they are in need of, that opportunity might not present itself again. For anyone who has not had to live like that it might be hard to understand why people would act so desperately. What made me angry was the attitude of the volunteers. Some had faces showing utter contempt for the people crowding and grabbing cleaning supplies out of a truck, because they were doing so in what they felt was a disorderly and ravenous fashion. Others were openly laughing and taking pictures on the scene on their i-phones. But the one thing that angered me most was that when the supplies were gone this little disaffected jerk that was supposed to be in charge asked the people who had received the supplies to thank the people driving the truck like they were ungrateful children. Mind you I have nothing against wanting people to show decorum and be grateful, but the demeanor of this man-child made me want to get up there and smack him upside the head for being so friggin' obtuse.

I will direct myself now to these little hipsters because I want them to understand something about what it means to be a volunteer. Most people are not all as privileged as you, who live your lives caring only about what new apple products you are going to go line up at the apple store to get. The people you are supposed to be "helping" are people who are living with the bare minimum from day to day and it is not a chosen condition for most of them. When you go to volunteer it is not going to be glamorous and people are not always going to do things and follow directions like you little drones do when you are in line at the apple store. The difference is that when you line up at the apple store you are doing so to get something you want. When these people you are supposed to be helping get in line it is because they are trying to get something they need in order to survive. If you are going out to volunteer do so with an open heart. Do not expect people to come down the line thanking you for handing them food or water or whatever other basic need (which was donated by other people for them to have). Most of the people I have seen coming to seek help have lost a lot materially and emotionally and they might be operating on automatic because feeling anything at the time might just be too much for them to handle. Be kind and gentle and for the sake of whatever good you believe in, try to empathize with them. While it is nice that you are getting yourselves out to try to do good, it is the attitude that you present that matters. If you are annoyed because people are not queuing up in an orderly fashion after being in line for hours waiting for basic needs, then I hate to tell you this but you are not volunteering for the right reasons. Get yourself out of wherever you are and go home, because the last thing that people who are living with the bare minimum and no electricity need is someone being condescending to them. 

Now I will direct myself to those volunteers who go out and have a smile on their face and a hug for anyone who needs it. Those who have gone into less than ideal conditions to help people dig out of rubble and feed those who would have nothing else otherwise. Those who do it because they want to help to make someone's day better without caring for how long they have to toil. Those who do it for the people they are helping and not for the glory or recognition. THANK YOU!!


Antiquarianation said...

Wow, you are vocalizing something that I have been feeling too. I have been very turned off by two more types of volunteer I've encountered during this time: The tourist, someone who is "volunteering" because they get off on seeing how bad the hurricane damage was. And the power-tripper. In Jersey City the people who spontaneously organized to help our neighbors were great except for one person who muscled her way in and took over and angered everyone around her. I'm ashamed to say I haven't been back since. I also haven't had time but when I do, I'm going to do it through a different organization. Overall, it seems like times like these bring out both the best and the worst in people.

Nydia said...

H I totally know what you mean. I am bidding my time and being really picky about what I chose to contribute my time to. Not only because I have very limited time with having the munchkin and all, but also because volunteering should not feel like chore.

I am betting that in a month or two all of those who are doing it for the wrong reasons will not be in the picture, which will also coincide with the fact that help will still be needed and it will be a great time to do some good and let people know that they have not been forgotten.