VIDEO: How disaster can feed inspiration (the Shore Soup story)

Back in October, Idealist video producer Liz Morrison blogged about the Shore Soup Project, a new nonprofit in Queens, New York.

Right after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Robyn Hillman-­Harrigan made the simple decision to begin cooking hot meals for her Rockaway neighbors who had no heat, no electricity, or no homes. That first step started a life-changing journey that combines her passions for healthy food and community building.

In the year since, Robyn has established the project as a nonprofit and become its executive director. Shore Soup continues to cook and deliver healthy food to home-bound neighbors, but its scope has grown to include restoring a community garden, building an urban farm, hosting workshops on nutrition, opening a summer food truck, and planning a restaurant-slash-community center to provide healthy pay-­as­-you­-can meals for residents and visitors alike, no matter how much is in their wallets.

Watch Robyn’s personal and powerful story in her own words, and get inspired to start taking action on something you care about. As Robyn says, “It’s cliche to say every journey begins with a single step, but it’s true. You never know where it will take you.”

Robyn’s story is just one of countless examples of people in the Idealist community taking small steps that make a big difference. Do you have a “small steps” story to share? Email it to april@idealist.org.

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A shore thing: How soup is rebuilding community in the Rockaways

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Robyn set up a hot food station on a street corner a few days after Hurricane Sandy devastated her neighborhood.

Almost exactly a year ago, Hurricane Sandy devastated much of Robyn Hillman-­Harrigan’s Rockaway Beach neighborhood in Queens, New York.

“Nothing was where you expected it to be,” Robyn says. “It felt like our beach town had turned into a war zone over night.”

At that time, Robyn wasn’t thinking about founding a nonprofit and opening a community restaurant. She was thinking about how she could help her neighbors.

On the first day after the storm, she started by bringing batches of hot cocoa, tea, and coffee to the people around her. The next day, she and her friends set up her propane camping stove outside on a makeshift table made from driftwood. They cooked batches of soup and warmed up donated food. A line formed down the block as people came out to eat a hot meal and find comfort in community.

A few days into the disaster, Robyn took a step back and thought about how she could increase her impact beyond that one street corner. She realized she needed better communication, a bigger kitchen, and a system that would help her reach the maximum number of people.

So she formed a Facebook group and asked her network for specific donations. The response was overwhelming. A friend lent space in his restaurant’s kitchen. Another worked with farms upstate to donate produce. A number of people volunteered to help cook and deliver the soup.

Thus, the Rockaway Rescue Alliance Shore Soup Project was born.

Since then, Robyn has centered the project around her two passions—providing access to healthy food options, and building community around food.

So far, the Alliance has founded a community garden, hosted workshops on nutrition, and continued to cook and deliver organic soups to homebound residents. They also recently ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for a summer food truck that provides healthy pay-­as­-you­-can meals to the residents of the Rockaways, who are still living in a food desert.

They’re now more determined than ever to be a resource in their community for a long time to come. Currently, they’re raising seed capital to open SHORE, a pay-­as­-you­-can restaurant that will double as a community center.

Robyn is excited to move into this next phase, though she knows it will continue to be hard work.

“Throughout this process there’s been a lot of red tape and struggle. And we’ve learned that things change and new needs arise,” she says. “This process requires continuous readjustment and the ability to shift and adapt.”

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Robyn delivering meals to the residents of Rockaway, Queens.

Lessons learned

1. Follow your passion and you will find your path.

Robyn has always cared about increasing access to healthy food and community building, and directly after Sandy, she found ways to use her passion to help.

“We just launched right into it. We were so excited and determined,” she says. “We didn’t think about a year from now. We didn’t think about worst case scenarios.”

2. Word of mouth can build momentum and make it real.

In the days following the storm, Robyn realized that people in other parts of the city didn’t know about the devastation in her neighborhood. But she figured that if they did, they would want to help.

That led her to creating a Facebook page, where she posted photos of the devastation and of her efforts to provide warm meals and a feeling of community. And people did pick up on it; just through word of mouth, she was able to get donations and volunteers. It also forced her to name the project, making it more official and sustainable.

3. Talking to people helps you gain wisdom and build a network of supporters.

Before jumping into growing the organization, Robyn took time to talk to people to get their feedback and advice. She started by reaching out to members in her community, then found other organizations who were doing similar work. These informational interviews provided insightful advice and also helped her to build a strong network of supporters.

Along with the residents, these supporters have helped the Shore Soup Project grow from a relief effort into a real, forward-thinking organization—something Robyn never could have imagined before the storm.

“We all have the power and ability to do things. If we choose to harness that power, we can do so much. But if we let our doubts stand in the way, we will never start,” she says. “The storm was the catalyst that helped me overcome those doubts and take the first step.”

The Shore Soup Project is hosting a benefit event to raise seed funds for their SHORE restaurant this Wednesday, October 23, in New York City. If you like delicious food, local booze, and great art for auction, check out their event page on Idealist for ticket details and to RSVP. If you attend, you may be featured in an upcoming Idealist video!

Shore Soup Project is also looking for volunteers to help them cook and deliver soup, as well as to fill a part-time position as their Head Chef and Kitchen Manager

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Respond and Rebuild: Community-led disaster relief in NYC

More than five months after Hurricane Sandy tore into the coasts of New York and New Jersey, many people are still feeling the effects. One neighborhood that suffered great losses and is still digging out is Rockaway, Queens, where the nonprofit organization Respond and Rebuild is working to repair damaged homes and get residents back inside.

The idea

Shanna Snider and Terri Bennett, two founders of the disaster response nonprofit Respond and Rebuild, met when they were volunteering with relief efforts in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Neither woman had any prior field experience with disaster relief, but they both took an instant liking to it.

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Terri Bennett (all photos courtesy of Respond and Rebuild)

“It’s a weird kind of work to enjoy,” says Terri. “The world would be a better place if it wasn’t needed.”

After months spent helping in the Caribbean, Shanna, Terri, and three other good friends they’d made on the island scattered around the map. They watched from different vantage points in 2012 as Hurricane Sandy drew closer and closer, and then struck—hard.

The five friends, soon to be joined by another they’d meet in New York, dropped what they were doing and, in 24 hours, made tracks to the Rockaway Peninsula—11 miles of beach at the southern edge of Queens whose neighborhoods were devastated by the storm. Nearly 100 homes were completely destroyed and many more seriously damaged, over ten thousand residents were displaced, and the power was out for weeks.

“When we came out here, we just wanted to help,” says Shanna. “We didn’t intend for it to become an organization—we all had other plans.” When the hurricane struck, Shanna was weeks away from leaving the U.S. to serve with the Peace Corps in Jamaica, and Terri was halfway through a Ph.D. program in international development and humanitarian relief. “But this took off,” Shanna says. “So why would I leave? This is obviously where I’m supposed to be.”

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Shanna Snider

Respond and Rebuild is now the leading volunteer group working side-by-side with homeowners and community leaders in Rockaway to safely clean out and repair damaged homes so their owners can return to them. The water removal, mucking, and (their specialty) mold remediation they perform is funded by donations and comes at no cost to the residents.

“Organizationally, we wanted to do something different than we’d seen done before. We wanted to be community-led and centered—not to drop in and tell the community, ‘This is what you have’ and ‘This is what you need,’ Shanna says. “The community here has really shaped what we do; they’ve led us to be able to meet their needs very directly.”

Obstacles

Respond and Rebuild’s success has not come without challenges. Here are a few Shanna and Terri have come across:

Obstacle: Living conditions
Solution: For the first five weeks of their operation, the initial members of Respond and Rebuild all lived together in a one-bedroom apartment near the beach. At times, it was hard for the crew to keep the organization running without going crazy.

But when they reached out to the community for help, they quickly secured two larger apartments to live in rent-free. “Everyone is vulnerable to disaster. So it’s a cause that touches people in a different way: it’s very personal,” Shanna says. “When we asked for assistance, people really opened their hearts and homes.”

Obstacle: Narrowing focus and asserting expertise
Solution: Given that there are a lot of needs in disaster response, Shanna and Terri knew they needed to give a focus to what they were trying to do.

“One thing we identified early on was our signature ‘cause’,” says Terri. “Mold. We became ‘the mold people.’ We researched and outfitted volunteers, waged a public health campaign, reached out to experts and other city orgs who had experience… We were the most organized group you could speak to about it, and that gained us trust.”

Obstacle: The ebb and flow of a volunteer-led group
Solution: “Especially in the first few months after a disaster, people come and go,” says Shanna. “And that can be a very emotional experience. But the group that remains, the core that’s left behind, is the one that works best together. It can be hard to hang on and not burn out; to recognize when to step back and breathe and when to give 150 percent. The ones that are left are the ones who figured out the balance. And as things formalize and become more structured, it gets easier.”

Advice

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Volunteers pose in their ‘Mold Buster’ suits

Since the end of October 2012, Respond and Rebuild’s hundreds of volunteers have logged an average of 1,800 hours a week to bring more than 100 homes back to livability. And the work continues.

Currently, Shanna and Terri are developing a blueprint of their organizational model, which they plan to share with others. In the meantime, here’s their advice for people who want to coordinate their own disaster response effort:

  • Just do it. “Trust yourself and the people you work with,” says Shanna.
  • Share skills.“We all had different skill sets and experiences that complemented each other: logistics, construction, management, communications, fundraising. And we also worked to partner right away with other organizations, which was a great way to take what we all had and make it most effective.”
  • Ask for and accept help. “Never be so arrogant as to think you don’t need help,” says Shanna. “I make a lot of calls and ask for a lot of favors. No one has all the answers by themselves, but together, you can get close.”
  • Be open to advice. “If someone else has already learned the lesson, don’t waste time relearning it yourself,” says Shanna. “Take advice openly, then decide if it’s right for your mission.”
  • Maintain balance. “Initially, adrenaline pushes you forward in disaster relief,” says Terri. “But as the immediate relief period comes to a close, the pace changes. Now we’d like to focus on employing local people, moving forward with partnerships, and developing a case management system for homeowners.”

“In five years, I can see us doing this work around the world,” Terri says. “But having the patience to take on all these things can be difficult. We’ll have to balance focusing and growing.”

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Inspired to help with disaster relief in a community you’re close to? Read more about Respond and Rebuild’s successful model on their website, or contact them through Idealist. In the NYC area? They’re always looking for new volunteers and donations.

Respond and Rebuild is also always looking to make their nonprofit better. If you have experience with disaster relief, they would love your advice about what surprise obstacles they might expect to encounter down the road. Or if you have experience with volunteer management, they’d love to know your ideas on best practices to retain volunteers, and on the best volunteer and donor tracking solutions.

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Helping out after Hurricane Sandy – more support needed

As New Yorkers begin to assess the damage left by Hurricane Sandy, we are learning about various ways for our community to get involved. Below are a few opportunities to volunteer and to make donations. If you know of others, please add them in the comments and share with others who want to help out.

Volunteers and members of the US Army National Guard Unit 827 Engineers hand out MRE’s to residents at a staging area located at the Al Smith Playground on Catherine Street this morning. (Bryan Smith/for New York Daily News)

Donations

The New York Blood Center is hosting emergency blood drives in all five boroughs. Find one near you to donate blood.

If you would like to donate money, The Office of Emergency Management has a list of organizations working on disaster relief in New York City that would benefit from your support. If your company would like to make an in-kind donation, learn more about how to do so here.

Many shelters also need supplies for people affected by the hurricane, including batteries, flashlights, and more. Check out Occupy Sandy to learn where and how to donate these items and how you can volunteer as well.

Volunteering

New York Cares is looking for volunteers to help with disaster relief. Sign up to get involved.

If you have tech skills, New York Tech Meetup and New Work City are looking for volunteers to help businesses get back online.

And if you are a health care professional, learn more about what you can do in the Medical Reserve Corps.

Know other ways to get involved? Share them in the comments.

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Helping out after Hurricane Sandy

Photo credit: jowiki, Creative Commons/Flickr

Although Hurricane Sandy is moving out of the Northeast, there is plenty of work to be done. Whether helping people rebuild their communities or sharing information, there are various ways we can get involved.

If you have any other resources or opportunities to share, please include them in the comments.

To everyone who has been affected by the hurricane, including our neighbors in New York City, you are in our thoughts. Let us know how we can help.

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