Eryka Teisch was pursuing her master’s degree in human resources management and development when Sandy struck last year. A professional who’d worked on Wall Street for 20 years before coming to NYU, she had a long history of helping those in need—so when the opportunity arose to work with Habitat for Humanity doing cleanup and demolition in the Rockaways, she jumped at the chance.
Teish was among 37 NYU students, staff, faculty, administrators, and community members who traveled to Breezy Point and Roxbury on Sunday, November 25, 2012 to help sort through the debris and begin to clean up what was a massive structural mess. NYU Stories asked her to reflect on the experience.
What made you want to do this kind of work?
I had always volunteered throughout my life, whether giftwrapping during the holidays or working for charities that deliver food. I’d worked with Habitat for Humanity before, and it’s an organization that really seems to get the work done. They go where they’re needed. When the e-mail came from NYU saying that there would be a bus to take us to Breezy Point, I thought, they’re making it so easy for us, this is the least I can do.
What did you see when you arrived in the Rockaways?
The bus driver did get lost, but we made it, and the people there were just so gracious. They were going through probably one of the toughest times in their lives, and yet they were so appreciative that we were there to help them. Their houses were completely destroyed, so we were helping to tear down walls. These people were having to get rid of things that they had a real attachment to—and we were the ones getting emotional!
Are there any stories you remember in particular?
Probably the saddest part was that one woman’s photos had been destroyed because they were all on the bottom floor. She was a complete wreck.
Another woman’s house had been completely destroyed, and her mother had been carried down from the second floor by volunteers. The mother was safe with a relative down South, but her daughter said she really wanted to come back. Everyone wanted to rebuild. It’s a very close-knit community. A lot of people felt bad for themselves during Sandy, but then when you saw what other people were going through, you really had to take a step back and say “Wow, I’m not the center of the world. I have my electricity. I have my clothes.”
Did you have friends and family affected by the storm?
I grew up in northern New Jersey, and have lots of friends with homes in Southern Jersey. When I was watching television during the storm, I would think, “there goes one person’s home, down the river.” Another friend was on the news because his dog was missing. It’s really sad, but sometimes it takes something like this to pull people together and really show how strong a community is. The previous year we’d had a huge ice storm in the city, and in Jersey it was ten times worse. Even then you saw an informal effort—neighbors coming together asking, “Do you need food? Do you need shelter?”
What’s the best way to get the word out when someone needs help?
Charities should consider communicating a little bit differently. Instead of waiting to compose an e-mail, why not use texts? If you text to say, “I need a group of people at 25 West Fourth Street,” you’d be shocked at how many people show up. We also need to work on a communication system that works in case of an emergency when there’s no phone service and e-mail.
How does service help build a sense of community?
Because the Breezy point trip was around Thanksgiving, many of the undergraduates who volunteered had family members in town, and some of [them] came along to the Rockaways. I didn’t know anyone when I showed up, but because of the type of people that volunteer, you tend to connect with them very quickly. You always walk away saying, I want to do more charity work. I want to volunteer more.