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Volunteers turn out to help Sandy recovery

A food and clothing drive is being held

A food and clothing drive is being held at the First Presbyterian Church of Babylon for victims of superstorm Sandy. It was organized by Michelle Melfi, her mother Judy Skillen and sister Kim Skillen, all of Babylon. (Nov. 2, 2012) Photo Credit: Handout

At the American Legion post in Babylon, a brigade of volunteers showed up with blankets, canned goods, even baked lasagnas -- anything to help their embattled neighbors suffering from the storm.

Inside the American Red Cross emergency shelter set up at Brentwood High School, they're called "spontaneous volunteers" who appear like angels of mercy. Some serve meals or set up cots in the gym. Others offer money and assistance in any way they can.

Across Long Island, thousands have volunteered in the past week to help the American Red Cross, religious groups, and other charitable organizations dealing with the needs of victims from superstorm Sandy, officials said Monday.

"There's been an outpouring of generosity by those looking to help other people, and right now we're in more than good shape," said Craig Cooper, spokesman for the American Red Cross, which runs seven large emergency shelters on Long Island.

In the past week, Cooper said more than 9,000 people in metropolitan New York have expressed a willingness to help. He said about 200 to 300 volunteers are needed to operate Long Island shelters, food and warming centers and emergency response vehicles.

Yet Cooper said "spontaneous volunteers" -- the Red Cross' term for people who show up looking to help -- have played a significant role. Most have offered simply time and good cheer, though one volunteer in Long Beach gave $25,000 to help with disaster relief there, he said.

"We've had phone calls all day from people -- some of them strangers -- who say, 'How can I help?' " said Al Engevik, past commander of American Legion Post 94 in Babylon. During the weekend, Engevik said, volunteers at his post started serving warm meals -- hot dogs, hamburgers and fried chicken -- in cooperation with the Babylon Village Chamber of Commerce.

No one entity oversees Long Island's volunteer help. A patchwork of groups such as the American Red Cross coordinates with emergency management officials from Nassau and Suffolk counties as well as state and federal officials, experts said. As an example, Cooper said, locations and sizes of Red Cross emergency shelters are determined primarily by government agencies.

The storm "was a very large event, and no one agency can respond to everything," said John Mills, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "FEMA is helping to coordinate the response, including from voluntary agencies, so we can identify the greatest human need."

Churches, synagogues and other religious groups are a big part of the surge in volunteer spirit. The Rev. Thomas Goodhue, executive director of the Long Island Council of Churches in Hempstead, said dozens of churches and nonprofit groups in both counties are organizing disaster relief efforts -- handing out clothes, serving hot meals, opening their doors so people can warm up, letting people recharge their cellphones.

The First United Methodist Church of Amityville is offering space to house volunteer crews from the United Methodist Committee on Relief arriving to help with cleanup and reconstruction work. Long Island's Muslim community is among those "twinning" with synagogues for such services as providing blankets, said Habeeb Ahmed of the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury.

Bishop William Murphy of the Diocese of Rockville Centre has launched a Hurricane Sandy relief effort to ask that nonperishable food, hand sanitizers, bottled water, diapers, warm clothing and batteries be delivered to any parish in the diocese.

Disaster relief efforts of churches and nonprofit groups are coordinated by a few organizations on Long Island including his own, Goodhue said. The Long Island Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD) is another, along with the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island. The LI Volunteer Center in Hempstead, founded after 9/11, matches volunteers with needs, he said.

Some corporations involved in the relief effort have given substantial monetary donations, Red Cross officials said, and small firms and their employees are volunteering resources. Christine Ebbitt, 32, of Ronkonkoma, a retail store manager, said she had time the past two days to volunteer at the ice arena in Long Beach, the main distribution point for donated goods in the community. "I don't have any power at my home in Ronkonkoma," she said, "but that is nothing compared to the devastation I have seen here."


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