In the days and weeks following Hurricane Sandy, tens of thousands of people pitched in to help their neighbors and communities – and many people continue to help with the rebuilding efforts today. Their individual and collective generosity of spirit was and is truly remarkable. In honor of their service, Repair the World is interviewing people who saw a need, stepped up and made a difference.

Volunteer: Tamar Kornblum
Who she is: Graduate student in Computer Science at Brooklyn College

What compelled you to volunteer after Hurricane Sandy?
After the hurricane happened, I found myself watching all the devastation on TV and thinking, “What can I do?” At first I found it overwhelming to figure out the best way for me to plug in. Then a friend of mine posted on Facebook that she had had a great day volunteering in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn. Having that personal connection really helped.

She posted that the location needed diapers, D-batteries, and a bunch of other supplies. So I went to Target, picked up some stuff and went to the site. At first I expected that I’d drop things off, stay for a couple of hours and then head home. But once I got there I realized, “wow, this place really needs help” – and that I could make an impact there.

What did you see when you arrived?
When I got there, a community organization called Families United for Racial and Economic Equality, FUREE, was directing the relief efforts. Volunteers were in the process of repurposing rooms in the former community center of the Gowanus housing project. Everything was very ad hoc in those first days, and there was one woman, Valery Jean who is the executive director of FUREE, who was in charge of directing volunteers. She was doing a million things at once – she had 50-100 volunteers coming to her and saying, “now what can I do?” She was handling the situation really gracefully, but you could tell that she was taking on more than one person could handle. For example, there was a senior that was out of insulin, so she was taking the information necessary to call the doctor for a refill. I thought, “That’s something I could do.”

I went up to her and said, “I have a bit of a medical background, do you want to send all the volunteers focusing on medical needs to me?” And she said, “That would be amazing.” So I was able to help take some of the load off of her.

What other types of activities were going on at the community center?
There was one big room that was receiving donations. Volunteers there were sorting through canned vegetables, diapers, and other supplies. Then residents of the housing project would line up and pick up what they needed – a bag of food for the night, or formula, or toilet paper. The power was out in many of the buildings, and a lot of people had no access to the outside. So each building had a building captain who organized volunteers going door-to-door to make contact with residents. They would come back to the central room and report that Apt 6A needed ice to keep her medication cold, or 7B is out of food and was unable to walk down the stairs. Then they would gather the supplies and bring it back up.

What other ways did you personally get involved?
The needs seemed to change every hour. At some point, it seemed like all of the immediate medical needs were taken care of, but at that point I wasn’t about to leave. I spent the rest of that day organizing the pantry, which I secretly really enjoyed.

The next day was a Monday, and many people had to head back to work. But while much of the city was beginning to function again, this housing project still had no power. I spent a lot of Monday setting up a mini office area for FUREE, and starting to input some of the information that had amassed into shareable Google Docs. It was heart breaking to see that someone had written on a scrap of paper, “Saturday morning, senior reports being out of food” – and you had no idea whether that person had been followed up with. Digitizing everything was a way of keeping track of all the loose ends.

How did the experience make an impact on you personally?
I live in Brooklyn, and walk past these housing projects often – but I had never really given them too much thought. Going to someone’s door and knocking, you enter into their world. One couple I met had just had a baby the week before Sandy hit. I knocked and the father ran to the door to shush me. At first I was confused, but then I saw this tiny sleeping baby. I realized that all of life is happening in these buildings, and you don’t know it unless you go.

I also learned more about FUREE’s work. They do not normally have a relief arm – that was just a necessary reaction to the needs from Sandy. Most of these housing projects get the short end of every stick in terms of governmental services and support. FUREE is a grassroots organization that works to organize community leaders to lobby, mobilize, and advocate for the needs of the community. I was really inspired to learn more about their work, and see that they are working to make meaningful long term change.

Learn more about FUREE’s work at their website. Do you know another Sandy relief hero? Let us know in the comments below or by tweeting @repairtheworld!