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.”
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!