When you think of someone coping with post-traumatic stress disorder, you might picture a friend returned from combat in Iraq, a neighbor who was in a car accident, or a grandparent who survived the Holocaust. You wouldn’t expect a five-year-old boy living on Long Island. But, as Ivy Reilly told a group of volunteers from campus Hillels up and down the East Coast who were gutting houses damaged by Sandy, since the hurricane, her son “believes that every time it rains, he’s going to drown, and mommy and daddy, if they go out in the rain, they’re not going to come home.”

Hillel volunteers - Hurricane Sandy
Hillel students volunteered on their winter break to clean and gut homes damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

“I just found her story absolutely heartbreaking,” says Johanna Sanders, a Hillel volunteer and senior at Binghamton, after hearing Reilly speak. “She’s clearly getting her stuff back together and rebuilding her life. We like to put the world into little boxes and think we’re safe, but the thing with these natural disasters is that it could really happen to anybody.”

Nearly 100 Hillel students from more than 20 colleges, who were away at school when Hurricane Sandy struck, are taking part in a volunteer project during their winter break, helping to clean up parts of Long Island and the Rockaways. The project was organized by UJA-Federation of New York together with Hillel International and Repair the World, and the clean-up and rebuilding efforts are being led by IsraAID and Nechama, two recipients of funding from UJA-Federation’s Connect to Recovery. With plenty of past experience coordinating emergency relief and disaster response efforts, these two organizations brought a lot of expertise to tackling the devastation left by the Sandy.

At Binghamton University, much of the student body comes from Westchester, Long Island, and New York City, says Shana Kantor, executive director of Hillel there, so the students were particularly moved by the storm. “To see pictures of places that they knew so well that were completely devastated had a really strong emotional effect on them,” she says. “We had students in our offices crying for at least a few weeks afterwards trying to grapple with the things their families had lost.”

“It was very upsetting,” agrees Rebecca Haft, a volunteer and senior at Cornell who had strong childhood memories of spending time at the Jersey Shore. “One of my roommates and I, we were just flipping through pictures, close to tears just seeing the devastation.” Now volunteering out on Long Island, she says, “We just finished the house that we were working on. We’re pretty much just gutting it so they can come in and redo it.”

What Still Needs To Be Done

After a day of tearing down walls, ripping up floors, and hauling insulation still wet from the flood waters to the curb, the students debrief about the experience with Repair the World staff using a curriculum developed specially in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and discuss the work that remains to be done. “Just because they’re going back to school [after this] does not mean that their volunteer work is done,” says Elyssa Alpert, finance and operations assistant at Repair the World. “It just means, ‘how do we transfer it to make it work from their location?’”

One way she mentioned that students intended to take this experience with them was by sharing the personal stories they had heard of damaged synagogues and dislocated families. They felt that “once people have something to connect to, people are a lot more willing to give” of their time and resources, Alpert says.

Students also got the chance to speak to members of the community who were personally affected by the storm. Reilly, whose family has been forced to live in six different locations since the hurricane, and who lost the entire contents of her garage and basement, feels it’s important to share her story with the volunteers.

“They knew why they were doing it on an impersonal level, but they didn’t know the stories behind the damage,” she says. “It motivates them to want to help again and to tell the story and to explain to others that there’s so much more work to be done.”