Different kind of volunteer responds after Sandy

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Some volunteerism for superstorm Sandy recovery efforts have an off-the-grid nature -- people who are unconnected to churches or established charities, but want to help check on shut-ins, shovel sand, run errands, and donate food and other goods.

Law enforcement officials have strongly urged that donations go to established charities, warning of scam artists, but some have ignored that advice.

Cheryl Gangemi, 43, of Middle Village, is among them. A mother and office manager who began organizing relief efforts to help families, she said the response of traditional charities and government officials "was just too slow."

Social networking through the Internet now permits people a more direct connection to help one another, bypassing long-established channels.

Technology and social media "changes the game," said Noam Shpancer, a psychology professor at Ohio's Otterbein University, who studies behavior in disasters. "You can connect with an immediacy and vividness like never before."

Indie charity efforts also have arisen in part from "increasing suspicion in the culture that traditional institutions are not as effective and not as benign as we believed them to be," he said.

Nelson Gomez, 44, of Brooklyn's Midwood section, was spurred in part by that belief.

"You hear about these people in donation organizations who make millions -- some of them make more money than people on Wall Street," said Gomez, a compliance officer who teamed up with friend Gary Weingarten, 38, of Bedford-Stuyvesant, to perform Sandy services their way.

The two men devoted themselves to helping a retired Staten Island couple, Stella, 70, and Tom Coleman, 72.

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The Colemans had paid flood insurance premiums for 25 years, but had missed a pre-storm payment because they were rattled by Tom's cancer diagnosis and treatment. That oversight lowered the amount they would get from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to rebuild.

To help, Weingarten turned his 38th birthday celebration at a lower Manhattan bar into a "Tom and Stella" fundraiser, and Gomez collected money for the couple at a salsa event.

Ultimately, the men said, they presented the Colemans with a $2,100 check.

The effort "changed my outlook on people," Stella Coleman said. "I always thought you had to worry about looting and mugging with strangers. I never knew there were so many people doing so many good things."

Some criticism of organizations, including the American Red Cross, is unfounded or based on problems long resolved, Red Cross regional communications director Sam Kille said. The Red Cross has raised $158 million earmarked specifically for Sandy and "91 cents of every dollar goes to aid," he said.

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In addition, 90 percent of Red Cross workers are volunteers, he noted.

Jen Shang, a philanthropic psychologist and assistant professor at Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs, said many good-hearted folks are motivated by an empathic urge to become immediately involved.

"They want to give their time and talent -- not just their money" to help alleviate suffering, Shang said.

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