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Archive for : Disaster Relief & Recovery

Alternative Winter Breaks for Sandy Relief: Rebuilding in Breezy Point

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.

Sandy Relief Interview: Rami Matan Even-Esh, AKA: Kosha Dillz

beverlydillzVolunteer: Kosha Dillz

Who he is:  Israeli-American Jewish hip hop artist

Rami Matan Even-Esh, better known by his stage name Kosha Dillz, is an Israeli-American rapper who is no stranger to the East Coast. Although he spent time in both Israel and the U.S. while growing up, Kosha was born in Perth Amboy and has close ties to the Jersey community.

We’re very excited to have had the opportunity to speak with Kosha, and learn more about his experiences during and after Hurricane Sandy hit his hometown.

Why did you decide to volunteer after Sandy?

I was at my family’s home in Manasquan, NJ getting ready to head back to LA when the storm arrived on the East Coast. My town was hit pretty hard and we ended up without power for eleven days. It was a crazy experience because on the one hand it was weird to think that it should take a natural disaster to bring a community together, but on the other hand it was incredible to see the way everyone was so eager to help.

It felt very natural for me to volunteer in Jersey after the Hurricane hit. I felt a very personal connection to the destruction, not only because the storm literally hit close to home, but because I saw first hand the way many of my friends and neighbors were affected, and I knew I of course wanted to help in any way I could.

What did you do in the days following the storm?

I became very involved in the cleanup efforts. I found many different activities to participate in; one day I’d be working in demolition and gutting a ruined house, and the next I’d be making sandwiches and coffee for people in my neighborhood. I also started bringing my dog with me to volunteer. People loved petting him and taking pictures with him, it was nice to be able to bring a little cheer to a neighborhood that was going through something really rough. Cheer is important at a time like this.

Kosha Dillz Sandy Storify

Check out Kosha Dillz’ Sandy Storify here.

How did you respond to your fans that reached out to help?

I’m fortunate to have a great fan base that follows me on social media. It was amazing to be able to tweet, Facebook, or Instagram something about a particular area needing help, and then being able to see that tweet or post spread throughout my fan-base, to their friends, to friends of friends, to people not just in our neighborhood but from all over, all getting involved and offering time, services, or money to help.

Has your volunteer work had an impact on your life or music?

Going through Sandy and getting involved in the recovery efforts has definitely influenced both my life and music. I feel that this experience has really caused a lot of self-reflection. You start to think about what is most important to you, and in my case I know that giving has always been a priority.

Back when the earthquake hit Haiti for example, we did a tour to raise money for relief efforts, and that was one of my favorite experiences. I also recently did a show in Brooklyn; we passed around a bucket for Sandy donations, and people gave what they could, every little bit helps.

Anytime I can use my music to give back definitely represents some of the most fulfilling times in my life; I feel the best when I have the chance to make a meaningful impact, and this most recent experience with the storm has re-sparked that desire within me.

What do you most want to share about your experience?

My immediate takeaway was that getting involved in both donating money and time were equally meaningful. It’s great to be able to get involved in the physical work (making sandwiches, cleaning out houses) and I loved doing it, but I think it’s also important to note that giving monetary donations, or getting involved in other ways in the future is important as well. People will continue to need many things after the initial response has died down, so I think it’s important to follow Facebook and Twitter feeds of smaller groups, like the Occupy movement, for ways to stay updated and involved.

I’d also really like to emphasize that the point of volunteering is not to be recognized or thanked, but to help in a meaningful way. That is what I tried to do and what I hope to encourage others to continue to do.


A huge thanks to Kosha Dillz for taking the time to speak with us about his experiences.

Be sure to check out his songs, and consider donating to his Kickstarter to support the upcoming documentary “Kosha Dillz is Everywhere.” 


The road to rebuilding in Staten Island

My day began at 5:15am. Three trains, one bus and a 20-minute walk later, I arrived at the Christian Pentecostal Church on Staten Island for what I thought was a shift with the Food Bank for New York City. “Who here has a car?” asked the Pastor, as he surveyed the room of about fifteen volunteers. As two people raised their hands he began to explain that volunteers had been coming in and out of the food bank site all week and if we gave him our permission he’d prefer to send us “into the streets.” Weekdays were slower-going there, he explained.

“We” was actually a group of six individuals from across Long Island and Manhattan who had chosen to sign up online and donate our time on Friday. Besides the mutual desire to step outside of our comfort zones and give of what we could, we had very little in common. One of us was a recent college graduate living at home, two were grad students, another was in-between jobs, and two others had been given the day off from work. Regardless of our backgrounds, we instantaneously joined forces and became a team.

Driving into the destruction, it was not hard to imagine we were somewhere else entirely. The National Guard’s presence both on the ground in tanks and overhead in choppers cut the silence as if we were in a combat zone and added to the eerie atmosphere. Houses once filled with life, sat abandoned and boarded up with the entire contents of ground floors laid out front alongside the curb. It was as if the guts had literally been ripped from the body of the home. And yet even more bizarrely, we were actually there to assist with the “gutting” of the homes , removing contents from the lives that people had once lived.

As we got out of the car, an enthusiastic middle-aged woman in a colorful macaroni necklace came running up to us, excited to ask us who we were and who had sent us. After a few moments comparing phone numbers and names, she assured us that we were in the right spot. As one of the volunteer coordinators with the Staten Island Evangelical Relief Fund, she had been overseeing donation drop-offs, construction teams, and food bank deliveries for the neighborhood of Midland Beach. Not to mention that her home (the very one she had run out to greet us from) had also sustained four feet of flooding and no longer had a usable first floor. And yet, as she surveyed her fully-gutted, unfurnished house, she still managed to make the funniest, bittersweet comment of the day, as she yelled, “Someone move that soggy drywall out of the living room! There’s no room left to sit down!”

Staten Island Evangelical Relief Fund has existed for less than a month. Its efforts are made up of a collection of individuals from the Evangelical churches and ministries on the Island, who have come together in support of their communities and neighbors, in response to Hurricane Sandy. Together, the churches have divvied up responsibility for the entire Midland Beach zone, one of the hardest hit areas in Staten Island. Despite limited formal training and experience in volunteer management, and the fact that so many of the key organizers are among the same homeowners in need of volunteer help, they have a clear understanding of who needs what and how to get it to them. They have developed a rudimentary albeit effective system of assessment that has allowed them to survey entire neighborhoods. They have set up a volunteer and distribution center that not only provides food and goods to storm victims but feeds hundreds of volunteers who pass through the Island daily. Most importantly all of this is done in a way that validates and dignifies each volunteer and each recipient.

What we saw and the work we did was difficult and heavy. The day began with removing and disposing of a waterlogged dry wall from the home of a pregnant immigrant who had been working with a stranger to gut her entire house prior to our arrival. Afterwards, we moved along to the home of a man who had returned after the storm to find four feet of water sitting in the ground floor of his newly renovated house. Emotionally, this assignment was the most difficult part of the day because as we tore down walls, we watched this man go through his unsalvageable belongings for the first time. He was present to watch us rip apart his house and essentially discard his family’s previous life. It makes sense now why removing walls is called “gutting” in construction lingo. A wall is never just a wall– as you tear it down, you truly feel it internally, in your gut.

For a volunteer, it can be easy to get caught up in the tasks of swinging a crowbar and tearing out insulation, even to the point that you forget where you are. When a building is stripped down to its studs it loses the memories it once held. When working alongside a homeowner and holder of the memories, it is hard to forget the importance of where you are standing. Most of the people we met who had suffered the most during the storm, were working-class individuals who had watched their stable lives wash away with the hurricane.

I am both fortunate and unfortunate enough to have volunteered numerous times in response to disaster. In the years following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, I spent weeks rebuilding in both rural and metropolitan Louisiana. I am comfortable leading a crew on a demolition project or in the rebuilding of a collapsing home, but it never gets easier to see devastation and watch people struggle to rebuild.

Until this experience, I had never stopped to think about how volunteering in the wake of a disaster is incredibly different than any other kind of volunteer work. Disaster relief is always retroactive – of course one can prepare for a storm, become trained in disaster response, and dedicate effort to planning and implementing specific protocols, but that can only get you so far. Until you are confronted with a disastrous situation, it is impossible to predict your necessary reaction. And that is what makes it all the more remarkable when you see organizations and volunteer managers who spring forth in not only dedicated, but also organized ways. It is not easy to manage a predetermined group of volunteers working on a traditional service project, let alone organize a haphazard stream of thousands of volunteers working on disaster relief. The volunteer managers and community organizations that spring forth to provide support in the wake of a disaster deserve incredible recognition.