Caravan of Hope: Habitat Vans Provide Sandy Relief

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Disaster Response and Recovery
Shanavian Smith

As an AmeriCorps VISTA at Habitat for Humanity International, I spend most of my days planning for events, attending meetings for upcoming projects, and supporting the wonderful and exciting things my fellow Habitaters (coworkers) are doing. Recently, I had an opportunity to see the impact Habitat makes firsthand as we led a project to help homeowners affected by Hurricane Sandy.

AmeriCorps VISTA Shanavian Smith (left) poses with fellow Habitat for Humanity staffers in front of one of the vans before the caravan left Atlanta for New York and New Jersey. (Photo by Patricia Decker)

Rebuilding Hope

The amount of devastation that Hurricane Sandy left behind took a lot of people by surprise when it struck. As many scrambled for shelter and other basic survival needs, Habitat for Humanity -- along with the help of generous corporate donors including Chevrolet, Lowe's, and Bosch -- sent 24 cargo and passenger vans full of supplies to the northeast to be used as mobile response units to help repair and rebuild damaged homes.

When volunteers were asked to sign up for this project to help repair, rebuild, and restore storm-affected areas, I volunteered because I realized that this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to not only see what happens on the ground but to also experience an historic recovery effort from a natural disaster.

As the vans got ready to pull out of Atlanta, the magnitude of what we were about to embark upon hit me. With a police escort and the local media watching, I felt hope, faith, and optimism as we started out on our journey to Charlotte, NC; Staten Island, NY; and Union Beach, NJ.

The Habitat for Humanity caravan to assist Hurricane Sandy encounters a rainbow en route to help homeowners with repairs in New York and New Jersey. (Photo by Patricia Decker)

When we arrived in Charlotte, we were greeted by excited local AmeriCorps members, as well as Lowe's and Bosch employees. As we loaded tools and supplies into the vans in rainy and dreary cold weather, there was something special about seeing people from different backgrounds work side by side with enough smiles to last a lifetime.

Everyone was so excited about the chance to help, and as we left we could see them cheering us on, knowing that many people would be blessed and given a renewed sense of hope by the work that we were going to do.

Serving Sandy's Survivors

After a 17-hour drive, we arrived at our destination. We were greeted by local affiliates and began to assist with the recovery efforts.

I was assigned to the home of an 80-year-old couple in Union Beach, NJ, whose house had been severely damaged by water. I spent a lot of my time talking with the homeowners, listening to their life stories, including memories of high school dances, their feelings during wartime dating back to the 1950s, marriage, kids, grandkids, and much more.

For them, it was refreshing to have someone to talk to and listen as they shared important lifelong experiences. For me, it was an unforgettable opportunity to connect with people and realize that in a world where technology overshadows basic communication, a simple face-to-face conversation can mean so much.

AmeriCorps members working with Habitat for Humanity pose with a homeowner in Staten Island, NY, who received repair assistance during the project. (Photo by Patricia Decker)

After our conversation ended, I helped volunteers put up drywall in the bottom half of the couple's home. I had never done home repair work prior to this trip, but everyone was so patient in teaching me what I needed to do to make sure the repairs were done correctly. As one of the affiliate leaders pointed out, he was just happy that I cared enough to come and lend my time to help others.

I believe seeing people dedicate their time and efforts to others whom they've never met before is an act of kindness and hope that is priceless. This was truly a rewarding experience for me, and I am looking forward to being able to get out there again and continue to help others.

At the end of the day, that's what it's all about.


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