Sandy highlights increasingly popular trend of DIY volunteerism
The Superstorm Sandy recovery proved an amazing symphony of guerrilla volunteerism. Individuals unconnected to churches or established charities poured forth to check on shut-ins, run errands, donate goods and food, shovel sand and offer housing and help.
While law enforcement officials urged that donations be made to established charities lest the softhearted be conned by scam artists, many people ignored that advice. The response of traditional charities and government officials "was just too slow!" complained Cheryl Gangemi, 43, an office manager and Middle Village mom who began organizing relief efforts to help various families.She also posted information critical of the salaries charity executives earned on her Facebook page.
Renegade volunteerism is a result of several factors: Social media permits people to network and help each other directly, bypassing bureaucracy and "middlemen" Many people did not have the patience to be vetted during the emergency or resented being screened by organizations that need to safeguard their reputations. Or they didn't want to be told what to by government and authority figures they considered inept or greedy.
"You hear about these people in donation organizations who make millions -- some of them make more money than people on Wall Street," said Nelson Gomez, 44, of Midwood, Brooklyn. Gomez, a compliance officer and self-described "control freak," teamed up with his pal Gary Weingarten, 38, of Bed Stuy, to perform Sandy services their way.
Armed with shovels, the two men showed up in Midland Beach, SI, shortly after the storm and devoted themselves to helping a retired couple, Stella and Tom Coleman, 70 and 72. When Gomez and Weingarten found out that the Colemans had paid flood insurance premiums for 25 years, but missed their last payment because they were so rattled by Tom's cancer diagnosis and treatment, (meaning that the Colemans would receive only a $20,000 FEMA payment to rebuild), "we wanted to do more," Gomez explained.
So Weingarten turned his 38th birthday celebration into a "Tom and Stella" fundraiser at his Lower East Side boîte, Verlaine's Bar & Lounge. Gomez collected more money for the couple at a salsa event. Then they made a book about all the people who had helped Tom and Stella and gave it to them with a check for $2,100, which sent Stella straight to Weepy Town. The spontaneous, tangible help provided by the two men and other rogue volunteers "changed my outlook on people. I always thought you had to worry about looting and mugging with strangers: I never knew there were so many people doing so many good things," said Stella between sobs.
The indie charity efforts have risen in part out of "increasing suspicion in the culture that traditional institutions are not as effective and not as benign as we believed them to be," said Noam Shpancer, a psychology professor at Otterbein University who studies behavior in disasters. Too, he noted, technology and social media "changes the game. You can connect with an immediacy and vividness like never before . . . People helping are in the mindset that they can get stuff done on their own; they don't need these institutions," some of which have been marred by scandal, he noted.
Young people especially are prone to believe that established institutions can be "a toxic thing for society and the human spirit. They feel they can organize in better ways that are more about sharing," and less autocratic, Shpancer said.
Much of the criticism voiced against organizations such as the American Red Cross are unfounded or based on problems long resolved, countered Sam Kille, regional communications director. Kille said the Red Cross had people on the ground before the storm and also gave money to grass roots efforts. The Red Cross raised $158 million earmarked specifically for Sandy and "91 cents of every dollar goes to aid," said Kille, noting that 90% of the 6,100 Red Cross workers were volunteers.
"No disaster response is ever perfect," Kille reminded.
Many good-hearted folks are less motivated by a dislike of charities than by a primal, compelling empathic urge to become immediately involved, said Jen Shang, a philanthropic psychologist and assistant professor at Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs. "They want to give their time and talent -- not just their money," and feel a vital need to be personally involved. Helping to directly alleviate suffering can be "life changing," for volunteers, Shang said.