Nearly six years ago, Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast, costing many lives and leaving billions of dollars’ worth of damage.
Areas south of Woodhaven suffered the most damage due to flooding and high tides, a deadly combination that left an impact that is still felt by many to this day.
The call went out for help, and residents of Woodhaven responded in a big way. All it took was a single post on social media to start the wave of volunteers that flooded the offices of the Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association over the next ten days.
That first morning, we opened the gates at 7 a.m. and were hoping for a few donations. But people all over Woodhaven and other parts of Queens were looking for ways to help and had heard about our efforts online.
Almost immediately, cars began to pull up and drop things off: cases of water, cleaning supplies, brooms, mops, and lots and lots of clothing.
Pretty soon we were overwhelmed with large piles of clothing inside the office, enough for many people of all shapes and sizes. Frankly, we didn’t know what we were going to do with all these clothes.
And then a minor miracle happened. A quiet young woman walked through our doors, saw that we desperately needed help, and took over the clothing table. She didn’t wait to be asked. She saw a need and said “I’ll do this part, you worry about the other stuff.”
She began sorting and folding the donated clothing, bagging and labeling them: “Men’s Large Shirts,” “Women’s Medium Pants,” “Children’s Small Sweaters.”
Had it not been for her, we probably would have done what many others did and just stuffed bags with assorted clothes and dropped them off.
Sure enough, when we would drop off donations we’d see large, unorganized mounds of clothing and cold, wet and tired people getting frustrated digging through them.
In contrast, thanks to our angel, the donations from Woodhaven were carefully organized and labeled, and that made all the difference on the other end.
Our miracle worker had many helpers, but I was particularly touched by her relationship with one volunteer, another young woman. The two worked side by side together for several long days.
They ate lunch together and they walked home together. They didn’t speak the same language, but they didn’t have to. Together they just got things done.
Over the course of those ten days, well over 1,200 bags of clothing came through the doors of the Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association, and every single one of them was sorted and labeled.
Residents whose cars had plenty of gas would form caravans and leave Woodhaven for Howard Beach or Breezy Point or other collection points in the impact zone.
We would return to Woodhaven empty handed and our angels would be waiting with more donations ready to go.
The residents’ hard work and generosity was an inspiration, and put to rest the perception that Woodhaven is a town where people do not care about their neighbors.
It was also a stirring example of people from different backgrounds coming together to help people they had never met and probably never would.
At a time where the country seems particularly divided, it’s worth looking back on these moments not too long ago and remember that, when it counts, we can come together as one.
Hopefully we can learn to do that on a more regular basis, not only in the wake of disasters.