All hands on deck: Volunteers crucial in post-Irene efforts

Like many of the homes and businesses in the village of Schoharie, Schoharie Reformed Church is stil

Like many of the homes and businesses in the village of Schoharie, Schoharie Reformed Church is still drying out.

But that hasn’t stopped the church from taking on a leadership role in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.

Shortly after the flood, a white tent was erected in the church’s parking lot, and every day volunteers man the tables inside, providing information on resources for flood victims and connecting would-be volunteers with those in need. There are shelves stocked with cleaning supplies and instructions on how to disinfect using bleach and water, as well as a food station, where snacks are available throughout the day and a hot lunch is served at noon to villagers and volunteers.

A colorfully painted sign that once read “Building the Kingdom” has been amended to read “Re-Building the Kingdom.”

“We as a church said that this is something we can do,” said Sarah Goodrich, a 63-year-old retiree who is coordinating the church’s flood relief efforts, which focus on the Schoharie Central School District. “The flood was on Sunday, and by mid-week we were out here with the tents.”

How to help

There are many ways to help the people, schools and organizations hurt by the floods. Here are some links and ideas:

Goodrich lives on a hill in an old farmhouse that wasn’t damaged by flooding. When asked to serve as the church’s point person for flood relief, she felt she couldn’t say no; the church’s married co-pastors lost their house in the flooding, as did many other people.

Over the past few weeks, volunteers have fanned out, bringing manpower, food, tools and supplies to communities throughout the region that were devastated by flooding.

They are a mix of locals, some of whom were flooded out themselves, and people from out of town, even out of state. Some decided to help because they have friends or relatives who live here, while others simply came because volunteering is what they do. Many of them said they feel called to help.

Compelled to help

Don Patneaude, 70, has been volunteering in Rotterdam Junction for almost a month. He lives in the hamlet but wasn’t affected by the flooding, and he spent last week gutting houses, clearing out mud, sheetrock and other damaged things.

Patneaude got his first glimpse of the damage the day after the flood, when he biked to a friend’s house and encountered “mud so thick that I got stuck in the driveway spinning my wheels.” The water, he said, had filled the house eight feet high. He worked there for several days, then went to the Rotterdam Junction firehouse to see if anyone else needed help. He was immediately dispatched to another residence, and he has worked on about 10 homes so far.

“Some of the people I know, and some of the people I don’t know,” Patneaude said. “It’s a small hamlet. I went to one house, and it turned out I knew the son.”

The Rotterdam Junction fire station initially served as a hub for volunteers, but that’s no longer the case.

Rotterdam Junction resident Chris Gallo, who has been helping coordinate the volunteer effort for the hamlet, said that the lack of a central location has made it tougher to organize volunteers.

“It’s different now that we don’t have a place to go,” she said. “In the beginning, people were more gung ho.”

Gallo was evacuated during Hurricane Irene, but her house was spared. She has returned to work, which limits the amount of time she can spend volunteering, but she continues to touch base with residents to see what they need and to collect supplies, such as kitchen sets and refrigerators, that can be distributed to victims. Last weekend she walked door-to-door, leaving notices on doors if nobody was home.

“I felt like I needed to do this for the community,” Gallo said. “It wasn’t a choice.”

Rotterdam resident Todd Koza, 45, expressed similar feelings. He grew up in the Junction and has been helping with cleanup and restoring electricity to people’s homes, starting with the home of “my ex-prom date’s husband’s mom’s house.”

“It was the right thing to do,” Koza said of his decision to volunteer. “Someone who has nothing comes first compared to those of us who have something.”

He said he “just kind of knocks on people’s doors and ask if they need help. Sometimes they say, ‘No, no, no,’ and so I’ve got to kind of push it a bit.”

He said it’s been hard to watch people “shovel their memories out the door. … The stuff that they were pulling out was just covered with mud, and it wasn’t normal mud, it was nasty mud.”

Learning experience

Mark Payne is an assistant professor for heavy equipment operation in the building trades department at Alfred College in western New York.

Last weekend he brought 11 students to Schoharie, along with some of the school’s heavy equipment, and the group spent Saturday and Sunday clearing debris and demolishing heavily damaged structures, such as a barn that was tossed onto a nearby driveway. They worked at nine different homes near Central Bridge, breaking after sundown on Saturday and in late afternoon on Sunday.

Payne said that a couple of his students have ties to Schoharie County and relatives who were affected by flooding and that they wanted to help. For almost everyone involved, it was a new experience.

“Since the building trades program started, we’ve never loaded equipment up and gone halfway across the state before,” he said. “But we saw that people were in need, and we wanted to help.”

Volunteering had a profound effect on his students, Payne said. “They had never seen anything like this before, and they had never done anything like this before,” he said.

He said that the experience has made his students more appreciative of what they have and that they’re eager to do more work. He said the group would likely make a trip to Binghamton next weekend to assist with flood relief there.

Giving what they can

All of the food at Schoharie Reformed Church is donated, and Goodrich doesn’t always know where it’s going to come from.

“It’s like the loaves and the fishes,” she said. “Every day we have enough.”

On Thursday, two women from Herkimer, Lori Fuller and Kathi Nasypany, arrived with homemade stews — beef and zucchini — and veggie packets for the church to serve. It was the first time they had made the hour-long drive, but they said it wouldn’t be their last: They plan to return every Thursday with food and other supplies.

During their stop at the church, the two women asked Goodrich if she needed anything else; Goodrich replied that she needed garbage bags. Fuller, 49, said that she sells cleaning supplies for a living and would be able to obtain garbage bags fairly easily. She also promised to bring ice, rakes and shovels.

Fuller and Nasypany said they decided to help after learning about the need for volunteers through their church, Herkimer Reformed.

“It’s a calling from God,” Fuller said.

Nasypany, a 47-year-old beautician, agreed. “When people are in need, you want to come and help,” she said.

“There’s so much to do, and they’ve really only started,” Fuller said. “They need volunteers.”

Many people say they don’t have time to travel to the church to eat or get food, and volunteers will bring supplies to these people.

Goodrich said that it’s good for people to take a break and have a meal in the village.

“It helps people refuel, physically and emotionally,” she said. “You get to see your neighbors, and share some of your grief.”

One of the most important things the volunteers do is provide moral support.

When a village resident informed the volunteers in the tent that he planned to rebuild his home, rather than relocate, they cheered.

Over the past few weeks, thousands of people have volunteered in the Schoharie Central School District, but a core group of between 10 to 15 people have kept things running.

Goodrich, an unassuming woman who wears a cross necklace made of nails, once ran a catering business and credits this experience with helping her see “the bigger picture, making decisions, assuming responsibility and communicating.” But she and her husband also owned Schoharie Pharmacy in the village’s downtown.

“We know a lot of villagers,” she said.

In addition to coordinating volunteers, Goodrich is temporarily housing two families displaced by flooding.

Rebuilding Schoharie and the surrounding towns and hamlets will take time.

As a result, a new community-based organization called Schoharie Recovery has formed to focus on the long-term project of rebuilding.

Goodrich refrains from using the word “victims” when talking about those affected by flooding.

“The word ‘victim’ is demoralizing instead of empowering, and people need to be empowered,” she said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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