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Sometimes a Calling Shows Up in a Surprising Way...

Date : February 17, 2013

Mothers Find a Calling in Volunteer Work After Hurricane Sandy

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By GINIA BELLAFANTE

God could not be everywhere, as the proverb goes, so he created mothers. Fathers misplace their children at the supermarket; mothers miraculously transform tofu to make it palatable to 3-year olds. Mothers grow indignant when the world isn’t as it should be. They carry placards and mobilize, often seeing themselves as the only custodians of sanity and efficiency left. Progressive movements through much of recent history have been testaments to the force of maternal will and tenacity.

Mothers, as it turns out, are useful in natural disasters.

These are generalizations, of course, but they hold true in regard to a group of women, most of them stay-at-home mothers unaffiliated with one another, who have found a calling — an obsession, arguably — in volunteer work for the victims of Hurricane Sandy. It is February and they are still very much at it; spending many hours a week in affected areas; managing reams of logistics at home; reminding you how urgent the need remains; how much is to be done; how unfortunate and vaguely amazing it is that it has been left to them to accomplish what agencies and bureaucracies have not. These, at the peril of seeming glib, are the Real Housewives of Relief.

The purest embodiment of the type is perhaps a woman named Jill Cornell, an attractive brownstone Brooklyn mother, with a quick and passionate cadence to her speech. For many years, she has spent summers in the Rockaways, at a beach club with her husband, a successful Realtor, and daughter. That daughter is now 15 and as she as grew older, Ms. Cornell felt a bit unmoored. She used to work overseeing proofreading departments in law firms, but she has been home full time for 10 years. Her most recent accomplishment before all this, she joked, was winning a pie-baking contest at the Windsor Terrace farmers’ market.

In the initial days and weeks after the storm, she began mucking out houses in the Queens neighborhoods of Broad Channel and Breezy Point. One day she scrubbed sewage from a bathroom with a toothbrush because there was nothing else around. She quickly lost six pounds. Until Christmas, her volunteer work consumed seven days a week; she has since scaled back to five.

Last week, Ms. Cornell was looking for someone to drive a U-Haul to Coney Island to deliver bedding from a Manhattan showroom that was donating it. A lot of her time is spent bringing food, made by those working with Occupy Sandy, to those displaced in hotels who are unable to cook.

She has marveled at the ways in which her new life has introduced her to unknown folk ways. Ms. Cornell, who has spent a lot of time in the housing projects of the Rockaways at this point, said she learned she had an inclination to do what is known as “air hustling” and that this habit is considered suspect and intrusive. “Where I live, you’re in a cafe and you overhear a conversation about a sale on cherries at Garden of Eden and you say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to check that out,’ and before you know it, you’re exchanging cherry recipes. In other places, things aren’t done that way,” she said, and so she has had to occasionally teach herself to muzzle it.

The supportive but dismayed husband emerged as a recurring character in the narratives Ms. Cornell and the other housewives recounted of feeling first drawn and then overwhelmingly addicted to something that has felt big and ambitious and defining. Jess Woods, a mother living in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, told me that through November she was spending 16 hours a day in the Rockaways. She has two children who are 4 and 6. “My husband conducted an intervention, quite honestly,” she said. “I neglected myself and my family.” The couple struck a bargain for her to go one day a week.

Although the storm could hardly be construed as a blessing, it has made real to those who otherwise might have just been paying peripheral attention, the labyrinthine dimensions of lives spent in poverty. Among mothers who’ve been volunteering, Leni Calas is something of a celebrity in this regard. In December, she took in a woman with two children whose apartment in Rockaway Beach had no heat and had become infested with mold. Ms. Calas, her husband and two children, 13 and 3, live in a three-bedroom house in Astoria, Queens.

After setting up a medical clinic in the Rockaways and getting donations distributed, she spends seven days a week now doing voluntary case management helping those whose grim circumstances were aggravated by the storm. One afternoon last week, I shadowed Ms. Calas as she traveled to the Rockaways to visit a woman facing eviction from a tiny rental house whose interior had been destroyed. The woman had a few white aluminum chairs and a space heater, and she had run through the $4,000 she and her 14-year-old son had been living on since October.

Since the storm, she had only been out of her a house a handful of times because, she said, as a domestic abuse victim, she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder that had now been made worse. She was terrified of her husband, who still lived with two of her children. Her cellphone was about to be turned off; she had no Internet access. With a binder of paperwork on her lap, Ms. Calas was going to help her navigate the system, talk to her landlord and work to get her the services she needed. Within an hour or so of leaving, Ms. Calas had gone on a grocery run for the woman with money she’d collected, and dispatched someone to unclog her sink.

“It’s been made abundantly clear to me how broken our system is,” Ms. Calas told me later, as the city prepared for yet another storm, suggesting that she was on a course from which she could not diverge. “What I am seeing are all of the things that I could have been doing for years.”

After Hurricane, a New Calling for Mothers
By GINIA BELLAFANTE
Published: February 9, 2013

Source: The New York Times

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