2013-02-15 / Community

Latter Days Saints Came Marching In

By Katie McFadden

During the early post-Sandy recovery process in Rockaway, many residents were at a loss. They didn’t know how to start cleaning up parts of their lives that were taken by flood waters during the storm. Then the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came marching in.

With their bright yellow vests and even brighter smiles, the volunteers of Mormon Helping Hands held out their hands to residents across the peninsula and helped them get started on the process.

Over an eight to nine week period, 11,000 Mormon volunteers contributed more than 120,000 hours worth of service in Rockaway alone. Their efforts expanded beyond Rockaway though. Through helping in Staten Island, New Jersey, parts of Long Island and other areas, more than 25,000 volunteers donated 275,000 hours of their time towards post-Sandy relief efforts.

The volunteer efforts were spearheaded by Mission President Kevin Calderwood. He started out working with around 200 missionaries from New York but he soon “realized that the devastation was much grander than what our 200 missionaries could handle.”

Calderwood put out a “clarion call” for Mormons around the area to come out and help their fellow man. Even he was impressed with the immediate turn out.

Volunteers started coming in by the bus loads from places such as Connecticut, Virginia, Washington DC, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and even as far as Canada and California.

“We were a little stunned by the response. I shouldn’t have been. This should be the norm,” he said.

Calderwood organized teams of about 10 volunteers and assigned two missionaries to each team. The teams were then sent out to various properties around the peninsula to fill three of four work orders a day. Coming from a church that is comprised of individuals who dedicate much of their life to service, the Mormon volunteers had a good handle on the vast task at hand.

“What we’re very good at is organizing very quickly, moving into the area right away and working very hard,” Calderwood said.

The Mormons called themselves “unskilled” laborers, but they were able to get a lot done in the first few weeks after Sandy. By removing floor boards, dry wall, furniture, rugs and other flooded items from resident’s homes, they helped many to get back on their feet.

Resident Danny McFadden requested the help of the Mormons during several weekends. Besides offering physical help, the volunteers served as a morale booster. “After working all week on the house, I was emotionally and mentally drained and once I saw them coming, the energy and spirit came back to me,” McFadden said. “I was no longer alone and I knew everything would be all right.”

When word got out about the Mormon’s efforts in Rockaway, it wasn’t just the Latter-day Saints who were wearing the yellow vests. Members of all faiths started to join forces with Mormon Helping Hands.Calderwood said they worked with members from Catholic Charities, Islamic Charities and others groups. “That shows the best side of humanity. We all shouldn’t care about differences in beliefs. People were hurting and there was serious tragedy there,” he said.

“Here we are, we’re Mormons, volunteering with Muslims and Catholics and helping in a Jewish person’s home,” Elder Walton said. Volunteers from Mormon Helping Hands even assisted at the West End Temple in Neponsit. They helped remove heavy, waterlogged items such as an organ and piano and they ripped out floors and tiles from the temple.

“They knew what they were doing. They were very very organized and focused,” Rabbi Marjorie Slome said. “I don’t think we could have done it without the volunteers.”

Resident McFadden shared similar sentiments and couldn’t have been more thankful. “I can’t think of enough nice things to say about the Mormons. I appreciated everything they did for me and my family,” he said.

The Mormons also found the Rockaway residents to be pretty impressive despite having to deal with so much.

“The people were resilient. I’ve never seen a community band together and help any way they could. I was very impressed. It set the standard for the kind of community I want to live in,” Elder Mitchell said.

“We loved the people there. It was our honor to serve. That opportunity to work amongst good people changed the hearts of the missionaries forever and mine as well. It was our privilege,” Calderwood said.

Much of Rockaway has grown to know and appreciate the Mormons, but aside from dedicating hours of service, many may not yet understand why they do it.

The Mormons are inviting Rockaway residents to learn more about them through a relaxing evening full of music on February 24th at 7:00 p.m. at the Belle Harbor Yacht Club.

They held a similar concert in December as a way to give residents something to celebrate after missing out on so many holidays due to Sandy’s distractions.

“People were shocked to see these people in the yellow vests cleaned up and playing violin and guitar,” Calderwood said about the talented missionaries.

Residents will have another chance to meet the Mormons, thank them for their service and learn a little something about their mission. “The missionaries will tell a little about some of the things we believe that would cause us to drop everything and come out,” Calderwood said.

In the words of Elder Mitchell, their Mormon message is that “God does love us, Jesus Christ is our savior, and the gospel of Jesus Christ is here again. The concert will explain a little bit more about what that means.”

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