I’m standing in a gym near the free throw line with about a hundred people staring at me and only me, waiting for my next move. A wave of excitement, anxiety and a touch of nausea creep over me as I ground myself.
No I’m not playing a basketball game in my high school gym (fortunately for everyone as my layups leave much to be desired). Instead I find myself in the gym of St. Camillus church in Rockaway, Queens in New York. It is four days after Hurricane Sandy touched down here scoring the land with destruction, devastation and loss. I steady my feet on the newly mopped floor that was only hours ago caked in a thick layer of mud. Even the earth came inside seeking safety from the storm. A light breeze blows through the gym with a fragrance uniquely pungent, with the amazing ability to hold on to all the emanating moments of the day. A cacophony of bleach, mud, mold, rot, ocean spray, anticipation, fear and hope. It’s the kind of breeze that gets under your skin and moves you to action. I guess that’s how I came to this moment. The breeze blew me here. Well, the breeze and a van full of Occupy Sandy workers carpooling in from Brooklyn.
I was about to speak to a room of roughly one hundred people – most strangers whom I just met that morning. At this point, we’d been volunteering together for five hours now and I’d already felt closer to them than my apartment neighbors of two years. Tragedy brings people together in the most magnanimous ways. Those personally affected and those witnessing the travesty bond together to create a community unlike that which existed before the hurricane. Everyone in St. Camillus, everyone in the YANA Community Center on Beach 113, everyone in Occupy Sandy, everyone in the Rockaway Youth Task Force, everyone in the Rockaways, everyone was exhausted. Cold. Hungry. Achy. But those were the unspoken conditions. What I heard all around me was “what do you need me to do?” “how can I help?” “where would I be most useful?” “I’ll do whatever you need.” This newly formed bond was shown so literally in the human chains formed to unload trucks full of supplies.
I have given speeches before in front of much larger audiences. Always well-rehearsed. Carefully planned. Intentionally crafted. But always a little removed from the moment. I was always watching myself from above critiquing, judging, guiding. I had no time for that now. I planted my feet, took a deep breath, glanced at my new friend and fellow alpha-take charge type, Leah, for an encouraging push and jumped into my new role as the leader of the St. Camillus donation center. I couldn’t tell you all the specifics of what I said in that speech. What I do remember are their faces. The faces of the volunteers and victims. The faces that told the story of that week’s events without a single word. The faces that beamed compassion, courage, humanity and hope. It was the first time I was speaking to a group of people that I truly felt connected. Heard. Understood. We were all in charge in that moment. We were all working as one. We were all strangers. And we all became a family for the next few hours.
As the sun set and it was time to return back to Brooklyn, I felt very conflicted. I really wanted to go home and have a warm shower. But I also really wanted to stay. I wasn’t worried about how tomorrow would go for St. Camillus. I knew that someone just like me would step in and keep order in the chaos. That’s the great thing about New York. It’s filled with type A, drive alpha leaders. I was mostly worried about losing this incredible feeling of community and a sense of, not accomplishment – as there was and still is much more to be done- but a sense of self. For the first time I truly felt my own power and my own potential to affect change. I am just a girl from Katy, Texas, but on that day I was a leader helping to change the circumstances of those less fortunate around me. Mahatma Gandhi said “be the change you want to see in the world.” I get it now.
Click below to watch Limor’s video of her time in Rockaway that weekend.