“I’m never surprised when people want to help”

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Starbuck Ballner’s parents were fans of Battlestar Gallactica, which featured a character named Starbuck. He’s a 26-year-old Operations and Administrative Coordinator for the volunteer group NECHAMA Jewish Response to Disaster. Nechama is the Hebrew word for comfort. Starbuck’s teams have been in New York and New Jersey mucking, hauling, deconstructing and rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. He started in disaster recovery with AmeriCorps and All Hands Volunteers before becoming a volunteer organizer for his current group.  (www.nechama.org)


Our organization creates an easily navigated channel to disaster volunteering. There’s no minimum commitment of time. There are no skills or prior experience needed. We use simple hand tools as the first step in the training process. We have people who have never used a hammer and we have volunteers with some building skills. If you have time and energy, we need you.

Volunteers pay their own way here and we have volunteers from Texas, Canada, Florida and the West Coast. When they get here, we supply food, housing, tools and organized work six-days-a-week.

I’m never surprised when people want to help. Watching TV is passive, but it can also be an inspirational call to action when you see the destruction. It’s people who just say, ‘I want to do something to help. I can get my hands dirty and learn new skills.’

It’s brave to go into a stranger’s home and do a deconstruction so there can be new construction. With volunteering, you learn by doing.

Early November, we arrived from our headquarters in Minnesota. We were planning a couple of projects. When Hurricane Sandy hit, we were planning rebuilding in Joplin after the tornadoes and work in the Catskills after Irene

Recently, we were in Ocean County, New Jersey building a wheelchair ramp where a survivor with cerebral palsy is living. She uses a motorized wheelchair. Her house was flooded. She’s staying with a friend. This ramp will give her mobility and independence coming and going from the house.

I’d say 85 percent of our work here has been gutting and chainsaw work. We travel with all our own tools. There’s no cost to the homeowner and we do what needs to be done. We’ve also done sand removal in Long Beach, Long Island. Picture a snow drift covering cars, streets and between the houses. In Long Beach, the storm surge moved sand from the beach into the streets. There were sand drifts covering cars and between houses that were removed with snow shovels.

After a homeowner calls us, we send an assessment team to determine the extent of the damage. We need to know what kind of tools we need and the scope of the work. We have a priority list for people with physical and financial limitations along with seniors. Those are our target populations.

Our work has taken us all over since we got here. Long Island, the Rockaways, work in Atlantic City to Brooklyn and Staten Island. We’ve fixed community centers, houses of worship as well as people’s homes.

We train and organize other volunteers that can be from 13 years old to 75. We’ll get college students, business owners, families from churches, retirees and high school students.

There’s institutional knowledge that goes with this volunteer work. Refrigerators can be a hazard for us if it’s in a house where the electricity’s been off for a while. Don’t open it. The smell is staggering because the food can spoil in one day. I made that mistake once and only once. I’ll never do that again.

Last Updated: 
03/20/2013 - 13:13
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