As an AmeriCorps VISTA member, I work on projects designed to increase the capacity of attorneys and advocates who provide disaster legal assistance. Thus, with few exceptions, I work more with attorneys and advocates than with the disaster victims themselves. On the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service organized by the Corporation for National and Community Service, however, I had the opportunity to join fellow VISTA members in doing community service. So, instead of spending this past Monday in the office, I joined VISTAs from the Health & Welfare Council of Long Island and volunteers from All Hands Volunteers to work in a residential basement damaged by Superstorm Sandy. The experience led me to reconsider my preconceived notion of the relationship between direct and indirect service.

The VISTA and All Hands volunteers took time during their lunch break to pose for a photo. Courtesy of the Long Island Volunteer Center.

Prior to Superstorm Sandy, the homeowner’s son ran a personal training business out of the basement. Submerged under 6 feet of water, the basement and all of the gym equipment were completely destroyed. While a contractor initially replaced the walls, they quickly became re-infested with mold. All Hands Volunteers offered to rebuild the basement, with their corps of full-time volunteers and day-to-day participants like me.

While I admittedly had zero building and construction experience (save for assembly of the Ikea variety), the All Hands site supervisor made sure to assign tasks we could complete, provide ample instruction and supervision, and pair us to make the work social and collaborative. The day’s work consisted of preparing, installing, and securing drywall and cement backer boards, which are the foundation of home interior walls. Volunteers were broken into teams that prepared, installed, and secured the wall materials.

My partner Charnelle and I spent the day inspecting and fastening the studs that keep cement backer board solidified and in place. Cement board is a water and mold resistant alternative to drywall. With both drywall and cement backer board, the screws keeping the boards in place have to be depressed below the surface before finishing and paint can be applied. So, Charnelle and I went around the basement armed with power drills, triangles, a T-square and pencils, checking every single screw on each installed piece of cement backer board. Other than a hand cramp from continual use of the power drill, I came away unscathed, albeit still without much construction skill.

An All Hands volunteer at work. Courtesy of the Long Island Volunteer Center.

Over the course of the day, I had the opportunity to converse with the All Hands volunteers and learn about their direct service. I left the house having made a tangible impact in a Sandy victim’s recovery – the cement backer boards I helped install will be the foundation of the finished basement walls. While it is sometimes difficult to leave the office and easily conjure the faces of people who benefit from the resources I am developing, I came away from my day of service having met someone who I definitively helped. To say the work was rewarding and of the utmost importance would be an understatement.

Direct service produced clear and palpable results that made it easy to see the impact my work had on Sandy victims, especially with the homeowner watching. It felt great to personally assist a Sandy victim. Still, I came away from my day of service feeling just as strongly about the importance of my VISTA service as I did on my first day. I had an enhanced appreciation of how vital both my efforts and those of the All Hands volunteers are to New York’s Sandy recovery.

I had assumed that direct services and capacity-building services were the front and back office of a giant non-profit machine; I now understand that the relationship isn’t so simple. We perform fundamentally different, yet equally important roles.

The All Hands volunteers help victims literally rebuild their lives after a disaster, and as a VISTA I can help make that rebuilding as easy and rapid as possible. For example, as I was working on the basement, I thought: “Why did mold return so quickly after a contractor initially reconstructed the walls? Was the contractor licensed? Did the homeowner have the necessary legal advice and knowledge to make the right rebuilding, insurance, and aid application decisions?” At Pro Bono Net, I am helping create resources that address these very questions and facilitate the provision of legal services to disaster victims.

Thanks to my participation in the MLK Day of Service, I now realize that there isn’t a yin-and-yang relationship between direct service and capacity building. All Hands Volunteers and Pro Bono Net don’t interact with each other or have the same deliverables, clients, or perspectives, but are both broadly engaged in disaster recovery. Each organization’s unique means of helping disaster victims are equally important and indicative of varied skills, backgrounds, and responses to different victim needs more so than a desire to be the front office or back office on recovery efforts. In our different ways and in our fundamentally different offices, we are serving the countless victims struggling to rebuild over a year after Superstorm Sandy.