Monique Pilie knows how to get it done on time. She’s a former Federal Express courier who started a nonprofit in her hometown after Katrina. Hike For Katreena focused on replacing the trees destroyed by the hurricane. (Which explains the unique spelling of Ka-tree-na.) For her nonprofit, she hiked 2,175 miles of the Appalachian Trail with the goal of planting a tree for each mile hiked. Mission accomplished. The nonprofit planted 8,000 trees in her five years with the group and recently passed a 20,000 trees plateau. A Loyola University grad, she came to New York to volunteer from her new home in Rhode Island.
I arrived in Long Beach, NY on January 7th, 2012 to lead teams of All Hands Volunteers to muck and gut houses that had been affected by Hurricane Sandy. I had prior knowledge of the great work All Hands had done in Haiti and the Philippines but had never worked on a project with them and was excited for the opportunity to work with them on a domestic project.
I was also excited to be working on a project that was near and dear to my heart.
You see, I’m from New Orleans. Born and raised. I was there when Hurricane Katrina hit, so I consider myself experienced with hurricanes and flooding and loss.
I stuck around after Katrina and also have experience with rebuilding and recovery and hope.
And that’s why I now find myself leading teams of volunteers into homes that were damaged because of Hurricane Sandy.
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of volunteers in situations like this. Volunteers are often the unsung heroes of disasters. They don’t come here to be recognized or to get good press or to feel good about what they are doing. They come here because they want to help, plain and simple. They see a situation where they can do something and they jump right in.
I have been here almost a month. We work 6 days a week with Mondays off. We are up by 7 a.m. and usually end our day around 4:30 p.m. which gives us a little down time before our daily 5 p.m. meeting.
During the meeting we discuss how our projects went that day and troubleshoot any situations that might have popped up. Then we discuss the next day’s work schedule and decide who is going on each project and how many volunteers we will be taking with us.
After the meeting we have dinner. We take turns cooking for everyone and I’m happy to say that I’m lucky enough to have some really good cooks on this team. After dinner it’s time to wash all the day’s grime off. We have portable showers which aren’t too bad and if I had one complaint it would be that the water is too hot. Actually, sometimes it’s scalding. But I’ll take too hot over too cold. After that I try to spend a little time reading or checking emails before I pass out from exhaustion. Lights are off by 10 p.m., but my eyes are usually shut before that.
Some days are harder than others. It usually depends on what condition the house is in when we get there. Sometimes some of the gutting has been started, other times we are the ones doing it all. Certain parts of gutting aren’t that hard, but other parts often get the best of me.
Floors are my nemesis. Many times we have to gut the house to the studs and joists, so we have to take out the floors. Now, ordinary tongue and groove floors can be challenging enough, but with the right tools and a lot of muscle you can get them up without too much problem. But some of these floors have a layer of tile, then plywood, then linoleum, then more plywood, etc. I worked on a house this week that had over six layers of flooring. Six!!! That’s just crazy and you have to tear up each layer. Never in my life did I ever think I’d be dreaming about floors, but on more than one occasion, I have found myself dreaming about flooring.
This week we had some great volunteers. For the first part of the week we were working with a group from AmeriCorps. They are young, strong and seem to have an unlimited amount of energy. They come from all over the country and are so eager to help. It’s always fun getting to hear their stories and learn about the different projects they have been doing. There was even a young man from New Orleans and we talked about what neighborhoods we grew up in and where we went to school and how much we missed not being there for Mardi Gras. It was nice to have an opportunity to talk about places we both knew and loved.
That AmeriCorps team’s stay in Long Beach ended on Thursday and they were headed to California to do some work on a public park. Their energy and enthusiasm will definitely be missed. Luckily, we had some great groups who had signed-up to work with us over the weekend. It’s always nice to get new volunteers in on the weekend. By Saturday and Sunday the work week is catching up with me, but I find myself feeding off the energy that the new volunteers bring and they help push me through the last part of my work week.
This past Saturday, I worked with four volunteers from Manhattan. They were all friends and had decided they wanted to do something to help out their neighbors on Long Island. We were working at a house that had about 3-feet of water, so we had to pull out drywall and take out a bathroom. I wasn’t sure how much we would get done that day but a couple of the Manhattan volunteers had obviously done work like this and before I knew it they had the whole bathroom finished.
By the end of the day all the drywall was out and all the nails had been pulled. I was amazed what they had accomplished and the homeowner could not stop thanking them for all their hard work. After all the tools were put back in the work van and the last bit of trash put on the street, the volunteers asked if I’d take a picture of them with the homeowner in front of her house.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell who benefits the most from those experiences, the homeowner, the volunteers or me. I am constantly inspired by the good in people and no matter how tired I am at the end of the day, I feel so fortunate to be doing the work I’m doing.