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Not From Government, Here to Help (3): All Hands Volunteers Cleans Up Sandy

September 30, 2013

By Howard Husock

Third in a series about the 2013 Manhattan Institute Simon Prize and Cornuelle Award winners for social entrepreneurship

The water from the storm that would later be called a “superstorm” converged on the Christian Missionary Light Baptist Church in Long Beach, Long Island, from two directions: the open Atlantic to the south of the thin barrier island; and the boiling bay to the north. Quickly, the painstakingly financed chapel of the historic African-American church—dedicated by the Rev. Martin Luther King in 1958—became inundated with saltwater. It was not at all clear, recalls the Rev. Isaac Milton, whether his congregation could repair the structure. Within a week of the storm, however, the minister was approached by someone asking if a corps of cleanup volunteers could sleep on the still-dry second floor of the church and use its small kitchen to cook. A month after the storm—when public attention had inevitably begun to wane—150 volunteers squeezed at one time or another into the part of the church spared by the storm and used it as a base camp to help clear debris from the surrounding neighborhood and to begin to assist homeowners.

Not until June 2013—eight months after the storm—did volunteers from the group known as All Hands Volunteers (AHV) finally leave the church. And they didn’t leave until after they had installed new drywall and undertaken the painstaking process of removing mold, a scourge of areas victimized by flooding. The church had begun regular services once again.

To an outside observer, it may not seem as if Superstorm Sandy had much, if anything, to do with the deadly Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. David Campbell, who would go on to found AHV, was then a successful middle-aged business executive. Shortly after the tsunami occurred, Campbell had lunch with a friend who had just returned from Thailand, where he’d barely escaped from a hotel where many had died. Campbell was struck both by his friend’s story of narrow escape and by hearing that Internet service had continued to function even as the disaster unfolded. Campbell wondered whether the web could be used to organize volunteers to help in the tasks of disaster relief. Campbell not only asked the question—he sought to answer it by packing up and traveling to Thailand.

His question and his subsequent trip turned out to be a life-changing moment for Campbell. Like many other volunteers who showed up to help in the wake of the 2004 tsunami, Campbell was turned away by established charities. Yet he met people there who, like himself, wanted to help. So a group of them, many connecting via the Internet, started doing basic chores such as clearing debris, building simple shelters, and trying to restore normalcy to the area. He ended up enlisting more than 200 volunteers and raising over $100,000 in what became Hands on Thailand. And he came to a key realization: there were a great many people who, in the wake of disaster, were inspired to do more than send money. And there were cleanup and repair tasks that major disaster-relief organizations were not getting to—or didn’t consider part of their job. He found that that lesson applied not only in developing countries but in the U.S. as well. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2006, Campbell flew to Mississippi and very quickly enlisted a group that grew to 1,500 people doing basic cleanup and rebuilding tasks. This time, he had enough experience to pull together communal sleeping arrangements and basic food service for the volunteers.

In the years since, Campbell’s volunteers have mounted disaster relief in Haiti (2010), Oklahoma (2013), and metropolitan New York, where Superstorm Sandy brought tsunami-like damage. All Hands Volunteers has become a formal, ongoing organization fueled by private donors (at first, Campbell’s own circle of friends) and providing a means to channel the energy and idealism of so-called spontaneous, unaffiliated volunteers (aka “SUVs”). It turns out that there are many such people. In 2012 alone—in response in no small part to Superstorm Sandy—some 4,300 adults volunteered for All Hands in exchange for nothing more than room and board. A visit to a house rented on the Long Island coast—where crews are working to eradicate the scourge of mold that developed in the wake of flooding—finds young and old alike, with skills in everything from construction to electrical wiring. The work here illustrates the nature of the niche that Campbell has identified. Red Cross workers help with short-term relief, federal agencies provide loans, and the National Guard clears streets; but no organization had the capacity to help individual homeowners (or organizations such as churches) deal with a potentially crushing problem that they could not afford to fix or for which they could not find a trustworthy contractor. Over the course of nine months on Long Island and Staten Island, All Hands Volunteers not only cleaned up what Campbell calls the “muck and gut” of the storm’s aftermath but stuck around to perform the otherwise expensive and time-consuming task of eradicating mold for lower-income homeowners. All this was done on a total annual budget (for 2012) of $660,000—a pittance in the world of disaster relief.

One can see why costs are low. Founder Campbell—former CEO of BBN Technologies and Computer Task Group—is best known inside the organization for asking volunteers whether “there’s anywhere we can cut expenses.” His business acumen also comes through in strategic insights. For instance, because many disaster-assistance groups feature religiously affiliated people, AHV has found a niche in appealing to those without a religious affiliation. Some are even willing to commit to months of volunteer time. Those with special skills—such as cooks, drivers, and carpenters—will commit, time and again, to help out in short bursts. It turns out, too, that many people are willing to share houses, sleep in bunks, and share communal meals. All Hands Volunteers, says Campbell of these rough-and-ready circumstances, is not like “those new NGOs with the tinted-glass SUVs.”

One could, of course, imagine a bunch of untrained volunteers rushing into a desperate situation and making things worse; AHV limits its efforts to locations (domestic and international) where, as Campbell puts it, “the size of the disaster overwhelms the community’s ability to respond.” AHV does not always focus on special problems such as mold reduction; they’ll take on almost anything that can be alleviated by immediate physical labor and that no one else is doing. One volunteer recalled carrying a decade’s worth of saltwater-soaked newspapers out to the trash before repairs on one Long Island home could begin. Homes damaged by seawater need costly mold remediation that entails removing all flooring and affected walls, a thorough cleaning, spraying of fungicide, and a time-consuming drying-out process before rebuilding. AHV created an industrial company to tackle the mold remediation. Specifically, after consulting with scientists, it brought in commercial dehumidifiers and heaters to dry out each house over a 72-hour period. The Robin Hood Foundation, famous for looking for tangible results for its grant-making, was so impressed with this effort that it ultimately invested $1 million in grant aid to AHV. The resulting process, the community mold program, has been adopted by FEMA as the standard approach to seawater cleanups.

In the small city of Long Beach, AHV volunteers bunked on the second floor of the Christian Missionary Light Church. The city manager, Jack Schnirman, recalls how key the organization was, arriving at a time when the city had gone 14 days without power, had no clean running water, no functioning sewer system, no traffic lights, a gas shortage, no cell-phone coverage, and police on the streets enforcing a curfew. In his view, without AHV, much of the mold remediation in the worst-affected neighborhoods simply would not have been done. But even while still on the scene on Long Island, AHV mobilized to send volunteers to help in the wake of the deadly May 2013 tornado in Oklahoma City.

Campbell continues to think even bigger, considering such ideas as working directly with governments around the world on “disaster mitigation”—such as tree planting in areas vulnerable to flooding—that willing volunteers might take on. But AHV will continue as a rapid response force, assembling instant armies to assist overmatched communities hit by natural disasters. Campbell himself will take a more strategic and less operational role. Like the best entrepreneurs in any sector, he’s passing the torch to a successor—based on his insight that “good leavers are good leavers[HM1] .” Among the things that Dave Campbell leaves behind is a church in Long Beach, New York, that’s in much better shape than when he found it.

Since 2001, I’ve helped direct the award program at the Manhattan Institute that recognizes top social entrepreneurs—those who develop effective and original approaches to dealing with social problems and who rely mainly on private funding and volunteers to see their idea to fruition. They are leaders of our civil society, doing the things that government can’t do—or can’t do as well. We grant up to five $25,000 awards, named for the libertarian thinker Richard Cornuelle (who coined the term "independent sector"), to promising, growing programs. An annual $100,000 lifetime achievement prize, the largest such award for an American nonprofit leader, is named for William E. Simon, the investment finance pioneer and U.S. Treasury secretary, whose book A Time for Truth sounded an alarm about the growing dependence of nonprofit organizations on government funding. Simon Prize winners have included Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone; and Brian Lamb, founder of C-SPAN.

All award winners direct organizations that they founded themselves—and that rely minimally, if at all, on government funding. They are more than just "points of light," however: many seek to extend their reach, whether by growing larger and branching to other cities, or helping others to start similar organizations elsewhere.

Award winners are nominated by donors who have seen the nominee’s work firsthand, and they are selected by a panel that includes: Les Lenkowsky, professor of philanthropic studies, Indiana University; Adam Meyerson, president, the Philanthropy Roundtable; William Schambra, director, Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal; Anne-Marie Burgoyne, former program officer, Draper-Richards Foundation; and James Piereson, president, William E. Simon Foundation.

This year’s award presentation will take place in New York on November 5. This is the second profile of this year’s award winners.

Here’s the list of winners from years past:

2012

BUILD, Suzanne McKechnie Klahr, Redwood City, Calif.
The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Center for Elder Abuse Prevention, Daniel Reingold, Riverdale, N.Y.
Getting Out and Staying Out, Mark Goldsmith, New York, N.Y.
IDignity, Michael Dippy, Orlando, Fla.
Simon Prize: Brian Lamb, C-SPAN, Washington, D.C.

2011

English @ Work, Maile Broccoli-Hickey, Austin, Tex.
Glamour Gals, Rachel Doyle, Commack, N.Y.
Work Faith Connection, Barbara Elliott and Sandy Schultz, Houston, Tex.
Improved Solutions for Urban Systems, Ann Higdon, Dayton, Ohio
MedWish, Lee Ponsky, Cleveland, Ohio
Simon Prize: Geoffrey Canada, Harlem Children’s Zone, New York, N.Y.

2010

Cristo Rey Network, Rev. John P. Foley, S.J., Chicago, Ill.
REEO, Scott Stimpfel, South Pasadena, Calif.
The Mission Continues, Eric Greitens, St. Louis, Mo.
Civic Builders, David Umansky, New York, N.Y.
SquashBusters, Greg Zaff, Roxbury Crossing, Mass.
Simon Prize: Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman, The Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History, New York, N.Y.

2009

Rocking the Boat, Adam Green, New York, N.Y.
Cincinnati Works, Dave and Liane Phillips, Cincinnati, Ohio
National Kidney Registry, Garet Hil, Babylon, N.Y.
United Neighborhood Organization, Juan Rangel, Chicago, Ill.
Simon Prize: Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), San Francisco, Calif.

2008

C-CAP (Careers Through Culinary Arts Program), Richard Grausman, New York, N.Y.
Beacon Hill Village, Susan McWhinney-Morse, Boston, Mass.
Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, Robert L. Woodson Sr., Washington D.C.
St. Bernard Project, Zack Rosenburg and Liz McCartney, New Orleans, La.
GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services), Rachel Lloyd, New York, N.Y.
Simon Prize: George T. McDonald, The Doe Fund, Inc., Ready, Willing & Able Program, New York, N.Y

.

2007

A Home Within, Toni Vaughn Heineman, D.M.H., San Francisco, Calif.
More than Wheels (formerly Bonnie CLAC), Robert Chambers, Lebanon, N.H.
Friendship Circle, Rabbi Levi and Bassie Shemtov, West Bloomfield, Mich.
Reclaim A Youth, Addie Mix, Glenwood, Ill.
Prison Entrepreneurship Program, Catherine Rohr, Houston, Tex.
Simon Prize: Daniel A. Biederman, Bryant Park Corporation and 34th Street Partnership, New York, N.Y.

2006

Inner City Neighborhood Art House, Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB, Erie, Pa.
Project K.I.D.—Responding to Kids in Devastation, Paige T. Ellison, Fairhope, Ala.
Project Lead the Way, Richard C. Liebich, Clifton Park, N.Y.
Taproot Foundation, Aaron Hurst, San Francisco, Calif.
Volunteers in Medicine Institute, Amy Hamlin, Burlington, Vt.

2005

Mexican Institute of Greater Houston, Jose-Pablo Fernandez, Houston, Tex.
RISE (Resources for Indispensable Schools and Educators), Temp Keller, San Francisco, Calif.
Philadelphia Futures for Youth, Joan C. Mazzotti, Philadelphia, Pa.
Shreveport-Bossier Community Renewal, Reverend Mack McCarter, Shreveport, La.

2004

Bridges To Life, John Sage, Houston, Tex.
Center for Teaching Entrepreneurship, ReDonna Rodgers, Milwaukee, Wisc.
Reading Excellence and Discovery Foundation, Al Sikes, New York, N.Y.
Upwardly Global, Jane Leu, San Francisco, Calif.

2003

The First Place Fund for Youth, Amy Lemley and Deanne Pearn, Oakland, Calif.
Living Lands and Waters, Chad Pregracke, East Moline, Ill.
Think Detroit, Michael Tenbusch and Daniel Varner, Detroit, Mich.
Working Today, Sara Horowitz, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Year Up, Gerald Chertavian, Boston, Mass.

2002

Shepherd’s Hope, William S. Barnes, Orlando, Fla.
College Summit, Jacob Schramm, Washington, D.C.
New Jersey Orators, James G. Hunter, Somerset, N.J.

2001

JUMP: Junior Uniformed Mentoring Program, John and Catherine Dixon, Buffalo, N.Y.
Neighborhood Trust Federal Credit Union/Credit Where Credit Is Due, Mark Levine, New York, N.Y.
The SEED Foundation, Eric Adler and Rajiv Vinnakota, Washington, D.C.
Steppingstone Foundation, Michael Danziger, Boston, Mass.

Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/howardhusock/2013/09/30/not-from-government-here-to-help-3-all-hands-volunteers-cleans-up-superstorm-sandy/

 

 
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