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Volunteers provide help and hope at U.S. Thanksgiving

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A new normal is emerging in Staten Island’s Midland Beach neighbourhood where Mennonite Disaster Service has set up alongside the ministries of Oasis Christian Center, to clean up and rebuild following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy.

The one-storey-high mounds of debris are gone. Traffic signals are working and electricity is back. Most houses have been inspected and are marked with red, green, or yellow placards signalling the level of work required for habitation, or condemnation.

The Oasis Christian Center has been a hub of activity in the battered neighborhood. The church sanctuary is now full with donations – clothes, cleaning products, food. Supplies are in order and sorted. A sign out front says, “No More Donations.” The church’s basement has been gutted and new metal studs stand waiting for finishing.

But there are still signs of the rolling wave that overtook the neighbourhood. Flood-damaged cars line the streets. Heavy equipment continues to roll in. There is a visible police presence.

Mennonite Disaster Service day volunteers are working, and groups are scheduled into December. An average of 100 volunteers work each week. Long-term coordinators are living in a RV in the church yard next to Oasis. In the days before Thanksgiving, groups of volunteers were coming from the north, south, and west. The groups show the diversity of MDS volunteers: Amish and Mennonites from Lancaster County, Pa., all varieties of Mennonites from Delaware and the Philadelphia area, members of the Bruderhof in the Hudson River Valley.

Volunteers are busy with about 50 jobs waiting. Residents are working alongside volunteers. The process of tearing out and cleaning up is dirty, smelly, musty. Even on crisp fall days, the air inside the flooded houses is damp and heavy. The church is still receiving lunch donations. Food just shows up from Staten Island businesses. The overflowing generosity is increasingly better organized. A truckload of quilts and knotted comforters arrived from upstate New York, made with love and gifts of human grace.

These days before Thanksgiving, the gratitude is evident. Staten Islanders still tear up quickly alongside volunteers. It’s tough to find temporary housing. It’s tough to imagine getting through this and getting to the other side. It’s tough to sort through belongings and to remember the surprising wave of water that submerged the neighbourhood as it never had before. Everyone knows Midland Beach won’t ever be the same or feel the same. There’s a sense of loss alongside a sense of genuine hope.

There’s still much to be done. And yet, there’s still much to be thankful for even in the midst of an unthinkable disaster. Hope and help keep showing up. Thanks be to God.

Stephen Kriss, director of communication and leadership cultivation at Franconia Mennonite Conference, on assignment with MDS

MDS accepts monetary donations to support the clean up work in all areas affected by Hurricane Sandy. MDS does not accept donations of food and other items. Visit mds.mennonite.net for more information.

MDS responds to disasters in Canada, the United States and their territories. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) responds to disasters in international settings. MCC is responding to the damage from Hurricane Sandy in Haiti. For information on MCC’s work in Haiti, check their website, mcc.org.

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