News Articles

Volunteers cleaning apartments, easing burdens near ground zero

NEW YORK CITY (BP)–Marchieta Young saw both planes hit the World Trade Center the morning of Sept. 11 from her 28th-floor apartment directly across the street. She and her daughter escaped unharmed, but over a month later when they were allowed to return she faced the emotionally draining issue of how to deal with the thick layer of dust and ash covering their most personal possessions.

It was about that time that she heard about the Southern Baptists.

Neighbors told her of teams of yellow-jacketed volunteers offering to clean their apartments — coupling professional-level services with the compassion and understanding of volunteers who do it as an expression of God’s love. At a time when the pressures seemed to be unrelenting, there were people with smiling faces offering to help make things better — for free.

“The miracle to me was that people who were so lovely and nurturing are going to come into my house and clean,” she said, taking a break from working with a team of volunteers from Dublin, Ga., who were finishing up her apartment. “It would have been a much different experience with anyone else, because it would have just been a big company coming in and doing this.”

Southern Baptists began their most recent disaster relief response in New York in October, when the American Red Cross asked them to consider the ministry. Since then, nearly 400 apartments have been cleaned by a volunteer force that in mid-November numbered about 125 strong.

It is a ministry that has grown even beyond the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief network, which is coordinated nationally by the North American Mission Board. More than 50 volunteers affiliated with the American Baptist Churches, were assisting with the effort in mid-November.

And over the Thanksgiving holidays, a group of 90 college students and single adults will serve on the cleaning details as part of a special World Changers work project — a volunteer ministry also coordinated by the North American Mission Board that ordinarily tackles rehabilitation of substandard housing.

The routine for the volunteers begins at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a former U.S. Navy base and current industrial park that has been a primary site for Southern Baptist Disaster Relief operations since a few days after the attack. The initial ministries offered were preparation of hot meals for distribution by the American Red Cross, but now most of the effort at this location goes to the apartment cleaning services and the related support operations.

Volunteers stay in the austere barracks-style quarters of “The Brig,” a federal prison two blocks away from the disaster relief headquarters site that is currently occupied only by the volunteers. A North Carolina mobile kitchen unit prepares meals, and mobile shower and laundry trailers also operated by North Carolina volunteers provide further support services.

The bulk of the volunteers are assigned to six-member cleaning teams, which depart from the site each morning by bus to catch a subway, then another bus, to the apartments adjacent to ground zero. Other volunteers ferry their equipment in on vans, while still others work to take applications from residents, assess needs and schedule teams.

Inside the apartments, the protocol is simple but specific. Special commercial vacuums are used to clean everything from the walls and ceilings to books, records and even clothes in the closet. Dishes are washed, refrigerators are cleaned out and pictures on the wall are wiped clean.

“The care they take with everything is amazing, especially the books,” said Young, who was originally concerned that much of her husband’s library might have to be thrown away because of the damage.

Many of the residents are either moving, or considering a move — just because of the memories associated with the site. In some cases, volunteers were instructed to throw away items that normally would be considered salvageable.

“They just don’t want to keep things that they associate with that day, so they throw out perfectly good furnishings, perfectly good clothes,” said Susan McDaniel, a volunteer from Atlanta who led one of the teams.

The project also provided plenty of opportunities for the Southern Baptist volunteers to share the motivation for their labors. One team from North Carolina would begin and end their projects with prayer, and they would leave a Bible autographed by each of them as a memory of their visit. Working side-by-side with residents helped them develop relationships that made the impact of their words that much stronger.

“The residents were overwhelmingly appreciative, and most of them couldn’t comprehend why we would come so far to do something so physically challenging, and totally on a volunteer basis,” McDaniel said. “We had had several opportunities to share that the reason we were doing this was that we had been blessed by having God in our lives. And in some physical way we were trying to share that blessing.”

Traditional socio-economic barriers also have been broken down, with affluent New Yorkers working alongside and forming relationships with the disaster relief teams.

“A lot of times we’ll end up helping people who don’t have insurance or are in some way on the lower end of the social scale,” said Frank Patterson, a member of Midway Baptist Church in Wingate, N.C. “Here most of these people are living in the prime real estate of New York City, and I don’t think it ever occurred to them that they would have this kind of need.”

In one apartment, a woman whose family occupied three connected apartments said she had come back to the apartment several times only to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task.

“I’d come in here and I’d just look at it, and I’d say, ‘How do I start,'” said the resident, who asked not to be identified. “I came in for a half day once and went home because I couldn’t stop coughing.”

She noted that she could have hired people, but she had a level of comfort and trust with the volunteers that she would not have elsewhere.

“I just think for these people to be doing this out of the goodness of their hearts is an amazing thing to me,” she said. “… These guys have just been incredible. I needed to be taken care of right now a little bit, and that’s what happened. They just came in and said, ‘We’ll take care of it.'”

She also made the observation that, while many New Yorkers wanted to help, there were insufficient networks in place for their volunteer efforts to be channeled. Southern Baptists, meanwhile, had an existing national structure with a workforce of thousands of well-trained reliable volunteers.

The volunteers, meanwhile, said they considered it a privilege just to be able to be a part of the national relief effort.

“Sometimes I would be working and just thinking about when this happened, and my heart was broken,” said Patterson’s wife, Cindy. “I don’t know if the whole country felt this way, but I just felt like I would do anything just to do something for these people. My back hurts, and I’m tired, but it was an absolute privilege to be able to help with this.”
For more on the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief response in New York, visit www.namb.net/dr. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: HEAVY-DUTY DUSTING, WORKING TOGETHER, GROUND ZERO, VIEW FROM THE 28th FLOOR, THE PERSONAL TOUCH and FLOOR-TO-CEILING VACUUMING.

    About the Author

  • James Dotson