Saturday, November 17, 2012

Superstorm Sandy:Crisis Counseling, Kindness, and Hope

I'm in New Jersey on my second to last day of volunteer crisis counseling. Yesterday, I finally had a chance to take the books to the distribution center. Here's a photo of the books. There are actually more boxes of books than you can see because there are some behind the big boxes. I purposely hadn't opened any, one for ease of transportation, and two because I wanted everyone to see that people from all over the country had sent them.

Once the volunteer who unloaded my car had all the books in his cart, he started to roll them away. I offered to help him open the boxes. "No, Doc," he said in a thick New Jersey accent. "I have plenty of volunteers who can do that. But there's only one you who can counsel people."

Disappointed, I almost stopped him because I really wanted to see all the books. But I would have lingered, seeing who'd sent them, examining covers and reading the back blurbs, starting the stories, and probably coveting more than a few. So I left.

Then when I got home to Bill's late last night, I had another three boxes waiting. And five more tonight. I'll make another stop to the distribution center tomorrow after my last group and before I leave to fly home. The last two nights were dark and cold, and I quickly loaded the boxes in the car because I know I'll dash out of here in the mornings. So I didn't look at who sent them. But I'm VERY grateful.

Today I did a group at the Senior Center in Sayreville, where FEMA and the Red Cross are set up. As can be typical after disasters, neither organization knew about the distribution center for people to get free food and clothing (and now books.) When a woman told me she had to use a portion of her rent money to buy food and diapers, I told her about the distribution center where I knew they had more diapers than they knew what to do with. She was so happy to learn she could receive free food, clothing, and diapers, and she could return another day if she ran out. After that I made sure the Red Cross volunteers who greeted people and said good-bye to them had the directions to the distribution center and told everyone about it.

Just as I was about to leave the building to go back to Our Lady of Victories Church, where I have done the majority of my groups, a Red Cross volunteer came up to me and mentioned that there was a man who'd lost everything and was having a difficult (and thus emotional) time navigating the bureaucratic hoops that disaster victims often have to jump through to receive assistance.

I approached the man, (I'll make up a name and call him John) introduced myself, and asked if he'd like to speak to me. John was tall and wide, with dark circles under his brown eyes. He wore shorts and sandals on a day that I had on a coat and boots. His expression lit up with eagerness, and he said a strong, "yes!" Then John asked me to wait while he left to do some paperwork, promising to return in ten or twenty minutes. I said I'd wait for him.

John returned. We went to an empty room, and he started talking. Very quickly, I could tell that this was a man who life had dealt some very hard knocks, the latest one being Sandy. He and his 17 year-old son were left with only the clothes on their backs. John was on disability from an injury and didn't have resources to replace what he'd lost. He'd been wearing the same clothes for days.

Early on in our discussion, after I'd said something to validate his experience, John said in a tone of wonder, "You've only been talking to me for 10 minutes, and you understand what I'm going through!"
I could tell he hadn't received much compassion in his life.

John told me a story that touched me and also broke my heart--how when the storm first started, he took $100 of his own money, bought candles, and went door to door at the hotel where he was staying and gave one to everyone.

His son said to him, "Dad, why are you doing this when no one cares about you?"

"Because it makes me feel good," John replied.

I hated to think of that young man (who'd been abandoned by his mother at age six) already having a world view that no one cares.

John and I had a very productive session. He was very open to my feedback and suggestions. I connected him with Catholic Charities for some free counseling and with the church for some spiritual support. At the end, he told me how much it meant to him that I had approached him, that I had listened, and that I had cared. The act of kindness was as important to him as the counseling.

As we were walking out, I told John I wanted him to take his son to the distribution center. In addition to getting food and clothing, I told him to search out the books, and I explained how people from all over the country had sent them to me, and I'd taken them to the shelter. I said I knew there were some science fiction and horror stories (thanks to the author-team at Amazon and also to Seventh Star Press) that I was sure a 17 year-old would love to read. "Yah, he likes those kind of books," his father said.

"Be sure you tell him that those books come from people who care," I said.

John thanked me, almost in tears.

As we parted, I hoped that the help I'd given John would indeed make a difference. Even more, I prayed that his son would pick out some books and, in so doing, would not just receive stories, but hope. And maybe, just maybe, he'd come to believe that there are people who do care.


  1. Okay. You have me in tears here. What a wonderful thing you've accomplished. John's story brought me to tears. I pray his son will realize people do care. How sad he's grown up in this world of good and only learned from the bad. I know your heart is full. Thank you for being one of the good who bring a smile to the unfortunate.

  2. The outpouring from authors all over the country really touched me, Deb. And your courage and giving heart are all disillusioned kids like John's son need--the good example. Yea you!

  3. Debra, a very moving story! You're doing great work. I hope there's a permanent solution for people like John and his friend.

  4. Debra-

    I was very moved to read about your work in New Jersey, the people you helped - from homeless people to caregivers. And I was glad to help in a small way by donating books, including several by Rebecca York, who posted a coomment earlier. I'm sure that by now, you're on your way home. Is it possible to continue to send books to the address that you'd posted? If so, more books will be on their way.

    God bless and take care.

    Binnie Syril Braunstein

  5. Thanks so much for sharing, Deb. You are an amazing person and your grace and beauty shines through in every thing you do.

    God bless.

  6. Debra, what you and the other volunteers are doing is such a beautiful act of grace. I'm glad you were able to help John. He sounds like a wonderful man. Thanks so much for collecting the books.

  7. Wow. That makes me cry, but the good kind of crying because of a bad situation getting better. I'm so glad you got to be there! I'll be praying for "john" and his son and all the rest!

  8. Great post. I am touched and glad you made a difference in John's life. And in his son's.

  9. Debra, This was a touching, heartwarming story. I'm a member of PLRW and we donated some of those books. It's such a good feeling to think it helped in some small way. Keep up the good work!