Meet the People who Make the Magic Happen!

Sandy Streetcar on the Spore Offensive

Sandy Streetcar on the Spore Offensive

It might be hard to believe, but there are people out there who think we’re a little bit crazy to be as obsessed with mold as we are. I’ll admit it might be a little weird to nickname the different types of mold you come across in different homes, or that certain members of our team who shall go unnamed (Hint: Mustache) are able to identify the homes of people we work with by looking at photos of spores. But hey, it’s all in a day’s work.

What’s even crazier is all the amazing people we meet who slave away all week long and STILL want to spend their days off in Tyvek suits with ghostbuster mold vacs, busting their butts to help people affected by Sandy get back to a sense of normalcy, and able to rebuild safely.

We love all the R&R volunteers so much we thought you might want to meet them, too. So with no further ado, welcome to our brand new “Meet the Volunteers” series!

Meet Tanuja

In kicking off these virtual introductions it makes sense to start with Tanuja, who’s not only been coming around for weeks now, but also brings along a van full of friends equally committed to helping out in the recovery process. They’ve nicknamed their 13 weeks (so far!) of coming down as weekend warriors the “Sandy Streetcar” project.

Tanuja has been living in NYC for more than 12 years, and like a lot of New Yorkers, has come to feel like she’s in a special sort of relationship with the city. When we interviewed her, she called the City her best friend. And in her blog, she referred to NYC as her husband. The jury is out on whether this constitutes cheating… but either way, every weekend for the last 13 weeks Tanuja and her friends have commandeered a vehicle, loaded it up with friends, and headed to areas affected by Sandy to help out residents trying to get back on their feet and back into their homes.

We asked Tanuja what inspired her to start the project and she said that when she volunteered at a church in Brooklyn the first weekend, “There was this long line of willing and able volunteers, but they lacked transport to get to the areas hardest hit. Some people were afraid to hitch rides out to these spots because there was no guarantee they’d get rides back! And I understood. I’ve lived in Manhattan for over 12 years and never owned a car. When we knew that mobility was a key issue to tackle, we organized and raised funds to help us rent transport. Now that we get a van every weekend, people don’t have to worry about transportation logistics or where to keep our things during the day. And that’s how we’ve been able to do 13 trips and counting!”

Respond & Rebuild encourages all volunteers to come down and join us in doing what we do, but we also have a special place in our hearts for “repeat customers.” Mold remediation requires a very specific method, and quality control is crucial. When people like Tanuja and her friends come down week after week, not only do we spend less time training and more time working, but volunteers start training each other, playing a huge part in our promise to residents: that they are receiving an effective, professional service.

Since the Sandy Streetcar folks have been coming down for so long, they’ve worked in a lot of roles: distribution, mucking and gutting, remediation, and even rebuilding. We know why people keep coming back. It’s important work. And it feels great to know you’re helping prevent the displacement communities often see after disasters, when resources are scarce and rebuilding seems overwhelming. But we also wanted to know why Sandy Streetcar keeps coming back as a cohesive group rather than individually. Tanuja says, “Coming together and working as a group makes all the difference in a disaster recovery effort like this. We need to talk about what we see after spending a day of helping someone pick up the pieces of their home. And frankly, we can achieve so much more as a group than if we just came individually. Because of the camaraderie we build, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

Treating floor joists for mold

Treating floor joists for mold

Having spent so much time reflecting on the work we do and the communities we work with ourselves, we understand how space for collective reflection makes for a more holistic response to disaster, and is crucial for moving beyond simply helping, to truly being in solidarity with the community.

To find out more about what it’s like to come out and work with us, and to see Sandy Streetcar’s take on the many issues faced by New York’s hardest hit communities, check out Tanuja’s blog here.

(Special thanks to Sandy Streetcar’s Gianluca and Cherished Team Leader Kevin LaVerdière for photos.)

A Day in the Rockaways

So you’re looking to volunteer, huh? Well have we got an opportunity for you! Put on your dirty clothes and lets get to work in the Rockaways. We’ve been called a veritable “Volunteer Delta Force,” so lets explore why.

Days begin with a volunteer muster at our working nerve center and Tool Hub on Beach Channel drive. Just arriving here and meeting the pastor of the small warehouse-like church is a reward in itself. Pastor Dennis Locke has been an incredible partner of fortune for us, and any conversation with this master of metaphor is rife with both heartfelt wisdom and lighthearted humor. Once everyone has arrived and begun meeting one another we hold a short briefing on general safety, basic techniques, and what to expect in the community. Then our coordinators form teams of volunteers, all headed by an experienced and trained Team Leader, to be outfitted with tools and dispatched to work-sites. These sites are homes whose owners have been identified and prioritized by our crack assessment team.

Once out in the field the real work begins. Physical work on a scale that individual homeowners couldn’t really begin to approach on their own, and a subtler emotional support that is really the backbone of any community based volunteer effort. Out in the field volunteers work intimately with residents, picking through flood damaged belongings and gutting out flood damaged residences. It’s people helping people to pick up the pieces of a life, and with each person working, each couch thrown away, each wall pulled down, a little more healing, peace, friendship and light enters the world.

Our teams currently take water-logged basements and ground levels all the way from the initial untouched horror of a post flood disaster, to the clean and relatively manageable bare studs and exterior walls that is a gutted and sterilized home. To begin, we immediately remove large sources of mold and other foul substances from the home by hauling all the water-logged contents out to the curb. This also opens up workspace and airflow. Armed with hammers and crowbars and shovels and wheelbarrows our next step is to pull apart all the trim, drywall, flooring, insulation, and general building materials that got soaked by the storm surge that dark night. By exposing the bare framing of the house we let it begin to dry out naturally. Once the house is gutted, a mold team will return to physically scrape off the mold, chemically treat the bones of the house, and finally paint the same in order to seal out further potential toxic growth. From there the way forward is much more clear and bright to everyone.

The whole process is enriching for all involved. The beauty of strangers helping eachother, asking for nothing, is obvious to anyone who spends even a moment down here. At day’s end there is nothing but smiling faces and glowing anecdotes, phone numbers exchanged and hugs around. It is truly an inspiring sight that should be shared with as many people as possible. Few experiences can compare. So sign up, spread the word, and most of all – VOLUNTEER!

So much to be thankful for

This holiday season has given us so much to be thankful for, it’s almost overwhelming. All of us have friends and families to thank, for both supporting our work and supporting our well-being in so many ways.

There have also been those who have surprised us: strangers who offered in-kind donations both to us and Occupy Sandy. Some have heard about our work, both strangers and friends, and have helped contribute monetary support to keep us going. Some have come by our job sites with bagged lunches to keep our volunteers well-fed while in the field. Some have offered up spaces in their living rooms to store tools until we could get them down to our work sites in affected areas. Some have donated tech skills and help with coordinating our databases. Some have held fundraisers or passed hats so we could get the supplies we needed as soon as we needed them. Pastor Dennis, who opened up his church to us to use as a staging ground for dispatching volunteers. Sal Lopizzo from Yana who has provided us with space, rides home, encouragement, and reminds us that we are never alone. (He also is great at hugging.)

We also would like to thank the great people at Liberty Bar in Seattle who let some ex-New Yorker friends there hold a benefit to support our work, and also the fine folks at Jimmy’s Diner who have helped keep us fed (and so well!) on long days when we have no time to fend for ourselves.

A special thanks this weekend to Edge Auto Rental who donated use of a 15 passenger rental van to Respond and Rebuild for 10 days, which helped us to make the most of the hundreds of volunteers who have been coming out for this holiday weekend. Without support like this, we’d have a much more difficult time effectively coordinating the enormous amount of volunteer motivation we’ve seen in the Rockaways.

One more big thanks goes out to our friends at All Hands Volunteers for inviting us out to their project site in Staten Island for Thanksgiving dinner. It was great to see old friends, hear about all the great work they’re doing in the community, and wish everyone luck on their new project starting up soon in Long Beach. Hugs to all we missed when we were out there.

Phew. That’s quite the thank you list, and it’s not nearly complete. We’re thinking of you all as we continue with the relief efforts in the Rockaways and beyond, and as we brainstorm about the best, most sustainable, inclusive, productive ways to move forward to rebuilding Sandy-affected communities in NYC.

Lots of love to you all.