After working at a cushy office job for over a decade, I wanted to try something different so I signed up to volunteer with All Hands, an organization that helps disaster victims clean up and rebuild their homes. After Superstorm Sandy flooded Long Island, New York, I took a trip out there to help in the rebuilding efforts.
Sign up was very simple and straight forward. Just filled out a few forms on their website wait for them to contact you. I signed up for two locations. The Long Island Project asked me to pick the dates I wanted to volunteer, whereas the other project gave me specific dates. After talking to some volunteers there, it seem like some were able to pick the dates they want to go to the other project so it may just depend on the coordinator you’re talking to. There’s no cost to volunteer and they provide you with food and a place to stay, you just need to find a way of getting there.
Upon arrival, I have to find my own transportation from the Airport to the Long Island Light Rail (LIRR). From the LIRR, the coordinator was able to pick me up and drive me to the huge communal beach house where everyone stayed.
After traveling mostly for business trip and staying in hotels, communial living was a drastic change. The number of people living in the house flutuates from day to day. On average, about 15 people were staying at the house during my time there. I was in a room with 5 bunk beds about half of which were occupied. You’re told in advance to bring your own bedding as that is not provided. The beds are slats of wood so an air mattress is recommended, however, air mattresses are terrible to sleep on too. It’s hard to sit up on it without feeling like you’re sinking into the edge and the slightest movement squeaks. Some bunks have cardboard over the slats, if I had to do it again, I’d probably bring a good sleeping bag and pad. Lights out is typically at 10pm in the bedroom but you can continue to do other things in the common area. In fact, you can come and go in the house any hour of the day.
Communally living also mean sharing. Sharing refridgerator and bathroom, or hot water rather in this case. I was volunteering in one of the coldest winters in New York and you’d have to time your showers properly if you want hot water. You’re welcome to raid the communal fridge (there’s a second fridge for individuals items) to make your own breakfast and pack a lunch. Dinner and dishes are done in pairs which you can signed up for in the one of two weekly meetings. Washer and dryer are available for everyone to use. All in all, you just had to be considerate of other and I didn’t run into any issues with things being unavailable.
There were usually about three job sites you can sign up for the night before but occassionally you get assigned to a certain site. The site supervisors were pretty accomodating though because I asked to get my hands in a little bit of everyhing and they were able to make it happened. In the rebuild stage, they provide primarily three kinds of services to the homeowners: Subfloor, Insulation, and drywalls.
Subfloor is the most labor intensive. The process involves cutting and moving heavy sheets of plywood, then glueing and sliding it into place. After the plywood is in place you have to nail it down which could be hours of hammering on your hands and knees, this is not hard but it get tiresome quickly. Occassionally there’s some blocking that needs to be put in place if there isn’t sufficent space in the frame to support the plywood, this is one of the more difficult task because it usually involves nailing something in an awkward position. I also worked with sheetrock briefly which seem even more difficult than subfloors.
Insulation is least labor intensive. Just unroll the fiberglass insulation, cut to the right size, and shove it between the frame. When I was on the job, we had the more challenging task of putting it in the ceiling as opposed to the wall. If you cut the pieces too small then you would need to put up a net to keep it from falling. Netting is a bitch. It is recommended you use gloves, goggles, and a mask because the fiberglass gets in your skin and it itches, but some hardcore people just go without it. The goggles and mask don’t play well together for me because when you breathe with the mask on it just fogs up your goggles. Also you are not supposed to take hot shower after working with fiberglass because it opens up your pores and gets under your skin.
Drywall sits in the middle in terms of labor intensity. The process involves scribing the the area where you will mount the drywall then cutting it to size. Drywall is lighter than plywood and easier to cut, just score it with a utility knife and snap it off. You also get to use a power drill to screw the wall in place; much easier than hammering. The biggest downside to drywall is that yourhands will obviously be dry after working with drywall all day long.
More important than difficulty though may be the atmosphere. A job site with more people will be more fun than working on a small site in relative isolation. The homeowners should be taken into consideration too. One homeowner would look over our shoulder which made it super uncomfortable for someone like me who didn’t know what I was doing, however, another homeowner was brought us coffee and donuts every morning and even pancake breakfast from McDonalds one day. Also, some job sites may have microwave and space heaters whereas some might not even have a bathroom. No matter what type of work, the more you work with it, the easier it gets.
One of the best parts of traveling and volunteering is you get to meet new people. Hanging out with locals is the best way to find out where to go for whatever you want to do. The most memorable nights was drag queen bingo at the Whales Tale in Long Island, which is basically a drag queen calling out bingo numbers but she was spunky as hell and cracking jokes all night. The server we got was awesome too, she made sure we all got bingo cards with the number 69 which everyone gets free shots when it gets called.
The view from Gantry State Park which I wouldn’t have thought to go on my own.
Sadly, you almost have to rely on making friend if you want to go anywhere. Without a car everything is far and Long Island is a beach town that can be rather dull in winter. I should also note that they take Mondays and every other Sundays off which makes it hard to going out on Friday and Saturday nights. The house is thankfully stocked with movies, books, board games, and awesomely fast wifi.
Beaches of Long Island in the dead of winter.
All Hands is a hard working bunch. For anyone considering going into the field of disaster response or construction, volunteering at All Hands is definitely worth looking into. Even though I don’t plan to venture into those fields, this was still a rewarding and valuable learning experience.