“Do you realize how close it is to Christmas?” my friend Leah Reich text messaged from California.
I didn’t. I was too preoccupied being cold and miserable in my parents’ house, where my immediate family and I were staying after losing power at our own home during the first few hours of Superstorm Sandy. Eleven of us across three families had already been hunkered down there for a week and a half when a snowstorm hit, causing my parents to lose power too. Heat, hot showers, and normalcy would have to wait.
Leah’s message snapped me out of the funk I was in. I was feeling helpless to contribute meaningfully to those around me who were worse off. Neither my house nor my parents’ had suffered much damage, and none of us had been injured. I wanted to go out and do something for those who had been hit harder, but I didn’t have enough gas in my car to get anywhere, let alone to wait on the hours-long gas lines.
Meanwhile Leah, a coast away in Oakland, was trying to lend Sandy victims a helping hand by arranging a blood drive. Her efforts sputtered through logistical problems beyond her control. We were both looking for a way to help, and the nearness of Christmas gave us a focus.
Our goal became instantly clear with her text: We could leverage our Internet savvy to make the holidays a little less traumatic for children whose lives had been disrupted by Hurricane Sandy.
Sacks for Sandy, a toy drive for dispossessed kids, was born.
“When I saw what Occupy Sandy was doing with the Amazon registries, it occurred to me we could do something similar with toys and wish lists,” Leah recalls. “After all, what kid hasn’t made a wish list at the holidays?” We set up an Amazon wish list containing toys and games for all ages, in all price ranges, with the gifts coming to my house.
Because I had been only skimming the news with a spotty Internet connection post-Sandy, I had assumed that the aftermath was a local story and that no one was paying much attention to it. It turns out the world was watching. And they wanted to help. We found a way to let them assist.
Powerful while powerless
About four years ago, Twitter put me on a “recommended user” list, and from that I gained a million followers. That’s down to about 915,000 now, which is still a staggering number of people potentially reading my timeline each day. My normal shtick is cracking jokes and ranting about sports, and Leah and I had become friends through that banter. My high number of followers has had little practical use in my life and career, aside from bragging rights, but now I finally had the opportunity to use my reach for good.
Leah and I turned to social media to jumpstart our efforts. We put feelers out on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook — just a hint that we were about to launch this fundraiser for the youngest of Sandy’s victims. The response was immediate and powerful, and it came from all over the world. The tweets about Sacks for Sandy went from chatter to outright buzz. We were retweeted by Internet luminaries and celebrities like Anil Dash and Neil Gaiman.
We eventually lost track of how many people were spreading the word about the toy drive, but I was reminded of the scale of participation by the new stack of Amazon boxes in my living room when I got home from work each day.
We once again turned to social media to create a persistent home for Sacks for Sandy. People quickly stepped up to help. Michael Owens of San Francisco volunteered to design the website for us. Hosting Matters gave us the domain sacksforsandy.com. Cori Johnson made illustrations for the site. My sister volunteered her time to help maintain the wish list, adding more toys and keeping count of what was bought so we could update the website regularly and tweet the progress of the drive.
Over 50 people volunteered to wrap the gifts. The Nassau County Firefighter’s Museum offered their space to host a wrapping party and to store the gifts, which led us to work with local fire departments to use their stations to distribute presents. With Skype and FaceTime, we were able to keep Leah front and center for all the action, even introducing her to volunteers during the wrapping sessions.
We then contacted Patch, an online-only hyperlocal news service with individual sites for hundreds of communities. When a reporter from my town’s Patch came to my house — now filled with toys, games, and books — Leah took part in the interview via Skype. The 3000 miles between us melted away.
Love in little packages
By the end of our drive, we had collected 1043 gifts through Amazon and $1300 donated through PayPal, most of this from strangers or acquaintances who never gave a second thought to trusting two people they knew only from the Internet to do right by their donations. That’s particularly touching given the number of social-media scams for donations and sympathy.
We nearly hit a setback right at the end when an arsonist set fire to the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Brooklyn, where Occupy Sandy was headquartered and stockpiling relief aid and where about 10 percent of Sacks for Sandy gifts had been wrapped and stored. The fire was put out rapidly enough that most supplies and all the toys avoided damage.
My parents eventually got their power back, and so did we. As our lives returned to normal, Leah and I became so grateful that we had taken the time to transform our frustration into something that made a meaningful contribution to lives around us. Social networks may be blamed for keeping people from making human contact, but even with Leah and I so many miles apart, we connected — and then spread that connection to thousands of others to bring a little light into darkened lives.
Michele Catalano is a freelance writer and civil servant who lives on Long Island. She likes to emphasize the civil over servant and hopes one day to delete that part of her bio entirely.