They call themselves the forgotten.
But on Thanksgiving Day, 1,300 volunteers, including four of my own family, showed them that they are not discounted.
A few weeks ago, while our family prepared for a blessed time of celebration – our oldest daughter’s wedding – folks in Staten Island, a borough of New York City, were bombarded by a storm that changed the course of their lives, Hurricane Sandy.
Because of their location being separated from NYC by New York Bay, Staten Island residents say they feel disconnected from the city. When the hurricane hit the outer shore of the island, the borough once again felt ignored and cut off as they pleaded for relief help.
Meanwhile, safe and unaffected by the storm except for a week of rain, my husband and I watched the news, saw the photos of devastation, but got busy with our family wedding. While we experienced blessings secure in our home with loved ones, homes in Sandy’s path were destroyed and lives lost.
Fast forward a few days. Our Thanksgiving plans involved traveling to the state next door to ours, one hit by the storm, to celebrate the holiday with newly married son and daughter-in-law. The week prior to the holiday our son phoned us to ask if we might consider an alternative to our traditional Thanksgiving Day feast.
Without hesitation, we quickly agreed as he explained what he and our daughter-in-law had in mind.
Their church organized relief help for hurricane victims; our son had already volunteered a Saturday mucking and cleaning out homes on Staten Island.
Next the church planned a Thanksgiving weekend relief effort called Sandy Thanksgiving.
With our consent, our son registered the four of us – son, daughter-in-law, Mama, and Papa to serve. Instead of stuffing ourselves with turkey and the trimmings, we would fill those in need with a helping hand and hope.
An army of volunteers outfitted in red t-shirts proclaiming ‘Jesus Loves Jersey’ descended on Staten Island to help clean out homes, distribute relief supplies, and provide food.
We met for our shifts at Gateway National Park and dispersed in small groups to zone stations within the area hardest hit.
Our son became leader for our group of ten. He, daughter-in-law, my husband and five other young adults spread out in our zone to help clean up yards and houses.
Another lady and I agreed to man the food station where I became grill master, cooking hot dogs, hamburgers and sausage on a brand new propane gas grill. We served hot sandwiches, chips, cookies, granola bars, drinks including water, coffee or soda, and pie to any hungry person who came by.
We distributed relief supplies from buckets and mops to work gloves and masks. All the supplies and food were donated and we were instructed to distribute everything. At the end of our work shift, the gas grill and ice chest would be given to a family in our zone that needed these items the most.
God planted us exactly where we were needed. We were the hands, feet and words of Jesus as we ministered to those who still need so much help almost a month after the storm’s devastation.
As the rest of our crew threw their efforts and strong backs into clean-up with area residents, I served others by offering a cheerful word, a hot sandwich, a cool drink, a place to sit and rest for a few minutes, and a listening ear.
Even if I couldn’t handle the clean-up work due to a finicky back and hip, I had legs to stand, hands to flip burgers, and kind words to dispense. I believe I was placed there for a purpose. God wanted me to witness small miracles with my eyes and ears so I could share them with others.
Near our zone station, Juan worked cleaning up his modest home, wrecked by the flood waters. After just a few moments of talking with him, I could sense he was a gentle soul. He spoke of God and His provision and care even though Juan’s home was ruined and unlivable.
Juan pleasantly agreed to allow me to photograph him standing in front of his home so I could share it in this blog.
I told him I wanted folks to realize the need that still exists on the island he calls home. He nodded and smiled and posed for me.
I soon realized that God placed my co-volunteer there for a purpose too. Juan is a mechanic, but many of his tools were lost or ruined in the flood waters.
My co-volunteer, Elaine, knew a recently widowed woman who wanted to give away her deceased husband’s mechanics tools. Elaine would see that the tools would find their way into Juan’s hands.
Juan shared that his home owner’s insurance company claimed his policy was cancelled two days before the storm hit. That spurred my new friend into action.
Fluent in Spanish, Elaine conversed with Juan about his situation. From his truck, he produced insurance papers and proof that he had paid his premiums on time and the insurance company had acknowledged receiving them.
My co-volunteer knew exactly what to do because she works in real estate. We agreed that this was definitely a “God thing.” The Lord knew that Juan, an ardent believer, needed her help.
Amazing things happened on this Thanksgiving Day. A vehicle pulled over and the driver asked me if I knew so and so. I replied, “No, I’m sorry, I don’t.”
As we talked, I realized he was not affiliated with my son’s church in any way. The man explained, “I got a call to bring this food and meet him here. I can’t find him. Will you please take it and see that it is distributed to the people here?”
I agreed to do so. He opened the back of his SUV where there were six boxes of sack lunches.
Each sack contained a large deli sandwich, a bag of chips, fresh pears and a bottle of water, all anonymously donated with no acknowledgement desired.
A pick-up truck pulling a trailer with construction tools stopped by next. A handsome young man with a thick New York accent and his little dog, Bella, hopped out.
“I’ve got some boxes of pizza here – straight from my friend’s restaurant in Manhattan. Can you please give these out?”
“This is no ordinary pizza,” he explained as he opened the top box to show me. And it wasn’t. It was pizza to die for.
“You’ll make sure that someone gets this, that it won’t go to waste?” he pleaded with me. I assured him we would. He told me he just needed to come to the island and help. All of his family were eating Thanksgiving dinner; he was missing it but he didn’t care.
“They all think I’m crazy to do this, but I just gotta do it, ya know?” he exclaimed as he grabbed Bella and jumped back in his pickup to go help somewhere else.
A construction company truck filled with workers drove by. I yelled to them, “Are you hungry? Do you need some lunch?” They replied they were fine and drove on.
Later in the afternoon, they returned and asked if the offer still held. They gobbled down hot dogs and sausage and exclaimed how good they tasted, thanking us profusely for providing it for them.
Another car arrived at our “block party.” A young man emerged with a large container overloaded with fresh fruit – a whole pineapple, apples, grapes, clementines, pears, bananas. Without a word, he deposited the fruit on our table. I thanked him with a “God bless you.” He merely nodded, returned to his car, and drove away.
All afternoon, moments like that occurred. The more we blessed folks, the more I felt blessed to be there in that moment. The kindnesses I witnessed, the gratitude of those we served, every minute was a memory-making moment that I’ll never forget.
As we cleaned up our station, loaded tables and chairs into a rented van, we discussed who to bless with the gas grill and cooler of leftover hotdogs and hamburgers. One man came to mind.
This man evacuated his wife and children in plenty of time before the hurricane hit, but decided to stay and ride out the storm to protect their home from looters afterward. As a wall of water descended on him, his decision forced him to swim from his home to a neighbor’s house which had a second story in order to survive.
Despite a bout with hypothermia, he had been working non-stop since the storm cleaning out his house and helping neighbors. As my son and another volunteer helped this resident load the new grill onto his truck, this man confessed, “I’m not used to being helped like this. I feel like crying.”
My son and co-volunteer asked if they could pray for him. As I watched, I couldn’t help noticing how moved this man was by the experience.
And I thought to myself, “This is what we, the church – the body of Christ – are called to do, to be the hands and feet and words of Christ to our brothers and sisters in the world.”
What an amazing thing to be thankful for!
As the day came to a close, our son drove the rental van with tables and chairs back to the church’s make-shift headquarters at the park and I rode along.
We decided to walk down to the beach while we waited for my husband and daughter-in-law who were walking the several blocks back.
The beach proved peaceful and deserted. No one else walked along the sand except the two of us.
Waves gently lapped at the shore as I shot a couple of pictures and marveled at how difficult it proved to envision an angry, out of control wall of water and wind forcing its way through this serene scene…until we turned around and saw the mounds of debris behind us.
I glanced at my son, my boy turned man. My son who answered God’s call to help those who are hurting, those who need a helping hand, those who need hope to make it through another day.
I hugged my son tightly and said, “Happy Thanksgiving. Thank you for bringing us here. It’s the best Thanksgiving ever.”
As we turned to depart from the beach, I noticed God had painted yet another of my favorite scenes – a sunset.
Another day was ending. Another day of life. Another day for which to be most thankful.