To Help Or Be Helped Works In Two Directions

Many years ago I worked for Catholic Charities of the Rockville Centre Diocese during the tenure of Father Emmett Fagan, the Director. At an annual luncheon acknowledging the workers of the mental health clinics, each worker was given a pin on which was printed “WE CARE”. Those of us attending were urged to pin it to our clothing. I did.

In his speech at the luncheon Father Fagan pointed out that non-profit agencies were unable to pay generous salaries, so that other perks had to be provided to win employee dedication. He proposed that Catholic Charities gave us something we needed, which was demonstrated by the pins we wore. He confidently said that we “needed” to care for and to serve others. He concluded playfully and ironically that we should be grateful to Catholic Charities for gratifying our need.

Human Need

Father Fagan’s words are still with me and very frequently ring true. The most recent occurrence was in the wake of “Hurricane” Sandy, where once again I was among many other people eager to serve those in need. It became clear in a kind of par­a­dox­i­cal reversal that if those in need were willing to receive from those wishing to give, then the receivers would have the power to take and be ben­e­fited and also have the power to help the giver, who had the need to give. From this perspective the positions of dependence and independence can become inverted alternately. And, from whatever position one views it, it is WIN-WIN.

The invasion by “Hurricane” Sandy brings these alternate positions to me directly, because I too was a victim of the natural disaster – though to a comparatively minor degree. I am one of the 8 million people affected, living in one of 12 states located from North Carolina to Maine and as far west as Michigan. I am one of the people who want to “care” and help, but I am also a victim in need of help. That con­nects me to others. I expe­ri­enced pow­er­less­ness, which left me in the dark, when daylight vanished. My landline phone failed which dis­con­nected me from loved ones, family, friends, and clients. I own a mobile phone, but its waning battery power was directly affected by my lack of electrical power to charge it. My basement was flooded. I experienced darkness and cold.

I chose to leave my home in the face of the threatening Nor’easter, even though fearful of the looting I knew was happening in some Long Island towns. Many others had to leave their homes, because their cir­cum­stances were far worse. Their homes were uninhabitable and/or they were personally in mortal danger from rising tides. Going from having a home to not having a home or being unsafe and/or uncomfortable in one’s home is an exceedingly unsettling experience which rocks a personal sense of security. I was among many who felt disconnected, insecure, dependent, vulnerable, and insignificant.

“Hurricane” Sandy was a disaster of unexpected proportions from which many suffered and many still suffer. One month after Sandy’s arrival I was volunteering at a shelter in which there remained over 150 people. My personal experience and the experiences of others, which I witnessed by direct observation or their reports, demonstrate that there can be opportunities for personal development in the midst of anguish. What follows is testimony to the inspiration provided by some people without minimizing recognition of the distress they needed to overcome.

Relief: The Path from Oneself to Others

Because I found powerlessness aversive, I took action by expressing my need to volunteer to help and in that way I tried to flee my powerlessness. My message was heard by one of my colleagues. She delivered it to another person, who was seeking a volunteer. When I encountered the “seeker” who was not yet fully clear about her need, I acquiesced to her request. I did not know what I was signing up for but consciously made a commitment. My task was finally framed: to help approximately 2000 high school students living in a community severely hard hit by Sandy re-immerse themselves in their jobs of being the involved students they had been prior to Sandy’s arrival 14 days before. Accompanying the 2000 students would be faculty and staff, also victims of Sandy, who would be in attendance at the 4 assemblies, divided by grade into 4 groups of about 500. Although intimidated by the undertaking, I barely allowed myself to be conscious of the challenge facing me.

The community in which the high school was located was in many areas inundated by flooding. There­fore many of the 2000 enrolled students and the faculty and staff either lived in areas requiring evac­u­a­tion from their homes from this community or from neighboring ones. Some who attended the assem­blies had been in mortal dan­ger. Those who did not evacuate their homes witnessed their pos­ses­sions being destroyed by water and/or wind. Some of those who did evacuate and then returned saw the destruction in its aftermath. Some returned to apartments or homes where the doors could not be open, because water pressed the doors shut and relocated very weighty furniture. Others saw 4 to 6 feet of water inundating their basements and first floors, threat­en­ing to mount the steps to the second floor leaving in its wake walls stained with water, sewerage, mold, and devastated and dete­ri­o­rating possessions.

Building the Field and Providing the Forum

The seeker who was a Guidance Counselor and her Principal each with their own entrenched needs to help had defined the field – the auditorium and the structure – 4 assemblies of approximately 500 or fewer students and faculty and staff. I was to provide the rest.

So I began to define my needs. Equipment: two microphones standing in each aisle; a white board; a glass with colored liquid. My goal: to encourage audience participation and to provide information by expanding from what participants shared about their experiences. My comments would illuminate the thoughts and feelings of those willing to speak for themselves and for the others who could not speak or did not speak aloud from the microphone. The assembly would be an OPPORTUNITY where anyone could take the microphone. Among those who took the microphones would be students, teachers, and administrators. Those who spoke could help those who listened get in touch with similar or different disaster related experiences. Whether acknowledged overtly or not, we were all in the experience together with opportunities to confirm ourselves publically or privately.


Each assembly began with the Principal welcoming the grade – the first was ninth; second, twelfth; third, eleventh; and fourth, tenth – and then he introduced me. I provided two experiences to invite involvement. The two experiences were designed to illustrate the idea that there is usually more than one way to view an experience.

The first experience consisted of presenting a transparent glass container filled to the midpoint with an amount of orange juice. The students were asked to tell what they saw. Students in each assembly responded: “the glass was half empty”; “the glass was half full”; “the glass has orange juice”, etc.

The second experience requested they read the following, which was written on a white board:

Opportunity isnowhere

Students were willing to offer: “Opportunity is now here”; “Opportunity is no where”; “Opportunity I snow here”. Once it was clear that people could view the same experience in different ways AND the experience could be viewed from a negative, positive, neutral, creative, clever, and/or a humorous perspective, we were on our way to looking at the experience of Sandy in a multitude of ways, depending on the person’s point of view.

One of the first students who vol­un­teered to speak seemed a little ambiv­a­lent, getting my attention with a slightly raised hand. With encour­age­ment she approached the microphone and began to speak without hesitation. She reported that she and her twin sister were living at her boyfriend’s home, apart from her family who had to vacate their home due to flooding. She and her sister were determined to attend school and therefore were willing to be separated from their family. Being the first to speak she revealed the need of many victims – the need to talk about the trauma. Her report led another student to speak from the opposite microphone with some confusion of his family’s going to another family’s home for shelter and then separating and re-uniting seem­ingly more than twice. In the descrip­tion of his travels he related the stressors involved in being grateful for the shelter but also spoke of the challenge of adapting to the requirements of being needy guests in the home of hosts, not always relatives whose life style was different.

Some students addressed their distress about being separated from their parents as well as their worry over the welfare of their parents. They spoke of the difficulties of living with strangers or relatives, even though they expressed gratitude for the kindness they received. The act of reuniting after a period of separation and the sense of relief in not being in a fractured family, despite the disintegration of the devastated family home, was expressed by other students.

Some of the members of the audience (faculty and administrators) spoke of the world as they knew it as being turned upside down by Sandy. Depending upon the community and location of their home within the community in which they lived, some experienced inundation by waves from ocean on one side and bay on the other. Sandy, having been reduced from a hurricane to a storm was still considered by some experts to be a tropical cyclone. The flooding combined with pow­er­less­ness and cold from the loss of electricity turned life upside down in a real and concrete experience. Those who were able to come up to the microphone to speak required a sense of balance in the aftermath to put one foot in front of the other. Arriving at the microphone was an assertion that they had regained a greater sense of balance and were sufficiently rooted to speak of their experience.

Some students spoke of their observations of parents in the face of the disaster. One student reported he was more responsible for himself and for his parents than he felt they had been for themselves and for him. Not interested in speaking of his feelings, he preferred to describe his encounter with a neighbor, formerly a stranger to him, but now becoming an acquaintance. This neighbor, who had electricity, offered to connect the boy’s family’s refrigerator by extension cords to his own outlets, seemingly very willing to share his power. The student, an eleventh grader, minimized his own “power” in achieving this consideration for his family. So the audience both seriously and playfully applauded the Good Samaritan neighbor for the help he gave to the boy’s family through this student’s initiative.

When I introduced the idea of “being helped” and “giving help” more directly, I noticed a pair of boys (one very tall and of color, the other much shorter and white) marching up, not to the microphones in the aisles but right onto the stage, where I was at that time. They were spirited and friendly. I learned when they reached me that they had decided to come up to “help” me. They asked on their arrival, “How can we help you?” I was struck by their perception of my words about “being helped” and “giving help”. I definitely needed all the help I could get from the audience. It seemed that the desire to be helpful was pervading the space of the auditorium. What help I needed at the moment was that they share their experience of either helping or being helped. So, each took the microphone from me and proceeded to tell how while not suffering directly from powerlessness or flooding, each had family who did. They detailed how they went from one town to another town to help out family members.

This desire to help was elaborated by a student, not a victim of flooding or powerlessness, who had been noticeably concerned about her extended family devastated by Sandy. She told of her own family’s efforts to help them. Following this report, a cool kid got up, walked confidently to the microphone in the opposite aisle. His popularity was affirmed by cheers coming from the audience, which often occurred throughout the day when a student made the walk down the aisle. He started out by saying, “I did not feel anxiety. I felt angst.” He proceeded to speak of his father who lives in a community surrounded by water, where it was known there was likely to be extreme devastation by Sandy. He was powerless to go to help or find his Dad. He spoke without hesitation of his “angst” and his preoccupation with his father’s welfare. He admitted unashamedly his relief in being able to report that his father survived the devastating surge in his community.

When the level of sharing reached this degree of emotionality, kids with differing levels of angst came up to speak. An eleventh grader spoke of the strain on his special needs sister who could not understand the flooding. He spoke of his extreme efforts to help his parents help this sister understand what the family was undergoing. This highlighted the assembly earlier in the day where many special needs students were in attendance. They were present with the twelfth graders. Being less inhibited than many of the soon to be graduated seniors, several of the special needs stu­dents spoke without self-con­scious­ness of their feelings during the storm. They spoke proudly about how they rallied and how they felt they had been a credit to the efforts to overcome the stressors and difficulties of the upset caused by Sandy. There was a persistent theme from those who spoke of feeling proud of themselves and their commitment to their school and community.

There is an occurrence deserving mention, because many members of the faculty remarked repeatedly about this event. At the conclusion of the second assembly to which I am referring that included the 12th graders and many of the special needs students, one of the special needs students was speaking. The warning bell rang indicating the period was coming to a close as the student spoke with some hesitation and mannerisms that identified him as having some special needs. He had more to say and continued. Then the second bell rang indicating the period was over. What followed left many of the faculty incredulous. Not one senior stirred. The student continued to speak, finished his sharing, and then, when he finally left the microphone, did the seniors dash out of the auditorium. “Incredible,” said the faculty members who remarked that when seniors hear the second bell they are like race horses breaking out of the (classroom) gate. However, not so on this day in that special moment, when the seniors gave their respect to the story of the special needs student who actually concluded with “…High School will prevail!!”

There was an Asian-American student with some difficulty speaking English, which seemed to be his second language. Not unlike the special needs students who wanted to belong, this Asian-American student also wanted to be part of the sharing. Though expressing himself in English seemed to be a challenge for him, he stood at the microphone and spoke of his alliance with his father. He and his father tried to help the neighbors to share their community’s resources and address the lack of cooperation and frustration.

It was probably after he spoke of the anxiety he experienced where people were competing for what they needed that a cool student of color came up and talked about how he had not been upset by powerlessness or flooding. As he spoke he moved his body in a rhythmic flow, a bit like dancing, and connected to the audience. He spoke of the camaraderie with his peers during the storm, playing games by flashlight and enjoying their friendship. We learned from him that the glass being half empty (lacking power and warmth) turned out to be for him moments of connection with others that he had been missing. When the lights came on, the togetherness had been interrupted. There was some sadness here. However, he went on to report in the following days he went to relatives in other towns to help them out. It seems he was telling the audience he needed to connect and did so, helping himself and at the same time others. I learned later that his beloved grandmother, who had cared for him, had recently died which explains further his enjoyment of the connections he had during the storm.

Summing Up

One of the themes of the day of the 4 assemblies was that of being helped and giving help. As conceived by the Principal and the Guidance Counselor the assemblies were designed to help the students return to their “jobs” as students. As understood by Father Fagan long before there are some people who just have to care and help. As demonstrated by the students and the faculty, whichever side you are on—helper or receiver of help—you are helping someone who is also likely to be helping you. The circle revolves and those involved are benefiting in one way or another.

That the glass is perceived as half full (or even half empty) indicates there is a quantity of substance, which can be viewed as energy. Opportunity being “now here” allows for the exchange of energy to occur. We pretty much can count on the WIN-WIN of helping or being helped. In the face of disaster everyone needs an opportunity to turn the tide and be a winner. Turning the tide is a pretty powerful place to be!

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