Whether a massive disaster has hit you close to home or not, it is easy to become overwhelmed. The devastation is massive and far-reaching. And for every loss captured by cameras, there are also private pains. Some homes floated away, others burned down. Some people lost their livelihoods; others lost their lives or loved ones. Some victims’ voices have been heard, and others are suffering in silence. For many there is no normal to get back to, normal will have to change.
I am reminded of all the ways my husband and I were helped after the fire that destroyed our apartment and belongings. Others came to our rescue in so many ways. Even in the aftermath of a great loss, we felt blessed because of everyone who cared for us. Now I feel blessed that I can pay that care forward.
If you are reading this, you are fortunate. You have your life. And perhaps you have other things, too: heat, food, electricity, time off from work. Now is the time for those of us who have anything to help those who have lost something. If your heart breaks, if you a touched by what you see, don’t let sympathy be your only reaction. No one can drink your tears. And thinking, “That’s so sad” won’t keep anyone warm. Let your empathy elicit action. Let your compassion compel you to give—blood, sweat, shelter, money—whatever you can spare. You don’t need to have wealth to offer something of great value. If you have anything, you can do something.
Blood: It’s something we all have, and something many need more of. Whether it goes to a leukemia patient or an emergency room, your blood will save a life, or change one for the better. If you live in New York City (or the tri-state metro area) contact the New York Blood Center (www.nybc.org). If you live elsewhere, contact the American Red Cross (www.redcrossblood.org).
Sweat: What work can you do on someone else’s behalf? Perhaps you could help with cleanup efforts, babysit someone’s kids so he or she can run errands, walk/bike to bring someone supplies. Not sure what to do? Pick a cause or organization you value, and volunteer your time.
Clothes: After our fire, there was no such thing as a small gift. Receiving something as (seemingly) simple as a warm pair of socks was often the highlight of my day. Do you have any clothing items lurking in the depths of your closet that you haven’t worn in over a year? Those are prime candidates for donation. Perhaps you’re like me, and people keep giving you scarves or _______ (fill in the blank). If you have more than you need (which is most of us), consider giving some of your extras away.
Space/Shelter: Whether in your car as you commute to work or in your home for a warm bed, hot meal, or shower, can you make space for someone? I’d rather spend the night in a sleeping bag on the floor of a warm and friendly studio apartment than a night in a cold and lonely mansion. Of all the gifts my husband and I received when we didn’t have a home, none meant more to us than shelter. And while we were living like nomads, we also greatly appreciated everyone who stored some of our possessions for us.
Food & Toiletries: Has your collection of hotel soaps and shampoos grown large? You can help on the micro or macro scale. Invite someone over for a warm meal (whether or not you cook it yourself), bring a care package to a family member or friend, or donate goods to a food pantry or shelter.
Money: It isn’t everything, but it sure does buy a lot. In the right hands, whatever amount you can afford will help someone. Is there any give in your budget? Could you do without something (and then donate the saved funds) for two weeks or a month (movies, manicures, macchiato)? Perhaps you already have an organization you trust. Give to them. Here are two that mean a lot to me: the New Life Community Development Corporation (New Life CDC) and the American Red Cross. I have seen firsthand the good work that they do for those in need, and I have benefited from it myself. When my husband and I lost our home for ten months after a fire, both were there for us.
The New Life CDC (www.newlifecdc.us) has a food and clothing pantry, health center, and provides showers for the homeless. It also runs English classes (ESL) and has a number of youth programs. The Red Cross (www.redcross.org) is there any time there is a natural or man-made disaster. Whether the hardship affects a few or many, whether it is local, national, or international, the Red Cross ensures that those in need receive food, clothing, and shelter. But the reach of the Red Cross is directly proportional to the generosity of others. Their budget is completely donation driven (no state or federal funding) and volunteers make up the majority of their workforce.
Be Creative: Literally or figuratively. Is there something unique you could give, do, or make to help? After our fire, one friend baked cookies for us, another friend made us bread. Someone else gave us movie tickets. When we finally returned home, and had walls of our own again, two artists gave us an original piece of work. And I still treasure the hydrangea a friend gave us, because having a houseplant meant I was home. Non-necessities like these can mean a lot in the wake of a disaster. They can be beacons of hope, portals to normalcy, or just a much needed, momentary escape into pleasure.
In the wake of disasters, it is easy to get overwhelmed, but it can also be easy to help. There is much to be done, and there are many in need, but there is also much that can be done, and many of us in a position to do it. You can help down the block, in a nearby neighborhood, or across the country. Help your friends, family members, or neighbors. Help with your friends, family members, or neighbors. Volunteer and help strangers. Do one thing, do many things, but do something. Help one or help many, but please…do help.