Benjy Brandwein’s home in Belle Harbor, Queens (next to Breezy Point) was badly damaged in Hurricane Sandy. So in the days after the storm, the mechanical engineering student rallied friends to come help him recover and rebuild. Inspired by the outpouring of support, he wanted to help other people rebuild as well.

His opportunity arrived a few weeks later when he received a call from the Bnei Akiva youth group, asking if he could organize an alternative winter break trip for Jewish college students who were home in New York for break. As long time supporter of the Bnei Akiva (he’s been a camp counselor and program coordinator there, and is currently involved in coordinating year-round programming), Benjy jumped at the chance. Partnering with Habitat for Humanity oF Westchester, and with micro-grant support from Repair the World, the program he created paid the kindness he’d received forward, and enabled students to make a difference.

How did the service program come about?
My house was severely damaged in the Hurricane. Once the storm passed, I posted on Facebook to rally friends, and had a lot of people come out to help me. A few weeks after the storm, I got a call from the heads of Bnei Akiva in New York saying they wanted to host some kind of volunteer program to help homeowners whose homes had been damaged or destroyed. They were open to any kind of program, so I put together a schedule and budget for a mission that partnered with Habitat for Humanity of Westchester. The idea was that participants would volunteer during the daylight hours, and have bonding activities – like going to the movies and hanging out – in the evening.

One of my bosses let me know that Repair the World was offering micro-grants to support Sandy recovery alternative breaks in New York. We applied and received the funding, which really helped us move the project forward.

How many participants did you have?
We ended up with 12 college student participants from all over the New York area – they drove in from as far away as Riverdale, Washington Heights, and the 5 Towns.

What kind of projects did they work on?
We split into two groups of 6 every day. We had the teams help with demolition – in one of the houses, all the floors had to be ripped up. In other cases, they shoveled sand or removed debris. Their volunteer work was dictated by whatever the needs were in a specific house.

Whose houses did you work on?
Habitat for Humanity had a station set up in Breezy Point where homeowners could come to them and say, “I need help with X,Y,Z,” and they’d help match needs with volunteers. Each morning around 9:30 we would head over there and be sent wherever we were needed. In most cases, the people we were helping would be there watching us rip up their homes and getting all the debris out. Seeing their reaction to having their homes demolished was difficult at times.

What kind of response did you see in participants?
At the beginning, the overwhelming response from participants was, “Wow – what are we doing coming into people’s homes and destroying them?” But they came to realize that tearing down the damaged structures was a part of the rebuilding process. In the end they were happy to have helped. They didn’t realize in advance just how bad the damage was, and they were excited to make a positive difference.

And how about your response? You put together a pretty amazing program!
Honestly, I was slightly overwhelmed. I had never done anything like this. I had worked as a camp counselor before and done a little construction work on my house, but to put them together to help people was entirely new. Luckily, Habitat for Humanity made it all easy. They were there to help us through the process. We have a second group of alternative break students coming next week, and I am looking forward to doing it all again.