Community, From the News, Religion, Uncategorized

Overwhelmed by the Goodness of Others

Last Friday, President Scott Wheatley, our church’s leader over the area from Vienna to Herndon, Virginia and everything in between, wondered what we could do as a community to help the Hurricane Sandy victims in New York and New Jersey.

President Scott Wheatley with Sharon Bulova, Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors

He contacted Kevin Calderwood, a church member from Reston who is now serving as a mission president in the New York South Mission of the church, overseeing 200 LDS missionaries. President Calderwood quickly responded and said the people there needed warm clothing, blankets and coats.

We sent out the word last Saturday that these good people needed our help.

I sent an email out to my neighbors, and other members of our congregations in this Northern Virginia area did the same. We also invited some of our church members in surrounding areas to join us by bringing clothing items and gift cards in $25 increments to help our missionaries buy food because they have depleted their own funds eating out. They can’t get back to their own homes for meals and they are spending all their waking hours hauling furniture out of homes and helping people one house at a time.

Local bishops announced an “Emergency Gifts of the Heart” donation event to be held at one of our buildings the next day. One couple in Frederick, Maryland immediately left the church, rallied their neighbors and joined other church members, packing up vans, trucks and a long trailer they towed to Oakton, Virginia because they felt the urgency of the call to help.

On Monday afternoon, the day before the election, when I showed up at the donation site, Stuart and Trina Neel, who organize a similar non-emergency “Gifts of the Heart” event like this twice a year, were busy putting up signs to direct cars through an efficient drive-thru where donors could drive up, drop off their donations and exit the parking lot. Our church members know this drill extremely well after participating in it for at least the last 10 years. In fact, Kevin Calderwood, the NY South mission president, is the church leader who really built up this event in the area all those years ago.

Hunter Daines drops off another bag of donations

Little did he know then that the giving model he perfected would be the same one that would benefit him and those he serves so many years later when faced with perhaps the most challenging assignment in his life as the leader in an area hit by the “storm of the century.”

Slowly the volunteers came. They picked up yellow “Helping Hands” vests, went to their posts and the work began. Volunteers then started coming in hoards and didn’t stop all night. The cars lined up from the drive-up and drop-off area, out the parking lot and down Hunter Mill Road. And the line never let up all night long.

Vehicles stuffed from floor to ceiling continued to be unloaded by teenagers who used their day off from school to gladly help. They rushed the items into the gymnasium where a woman from Rockville had positioned her wheelchair for the evening to direct the teenagers where to put their bags of donations.

Then, hundreds of volunteers hurriedly grabbed bags, tore them open and began the massive sorting.  When stacks of clothing became too high, they piled them neatly below the tables — infants, boys, girls, young women, young men, men and women. We saw boxes full of brand new towels, brand new coats. Families came together and every child had a job to do. The biggest challenge of the night was tracking down enough boxes for all the donations.

Becky Probst from Reston walked into the church and asked Trina what she could do to help. “Do you have a van?” she asked. “I have a van,” Becky said. “Then go find boxes — as many and as fast as you can.” Becky left and wondered where she could go that hadn’t all ready been cleaned out of boxes by other volunteers. Finally, she pulled her car over to the side of the road and said a prayer. “Help me find boxes,” she pled.  The name of a man she’d worked with on a different project years before popped into her head, and that led her to another man who owned a moving company. She emailed him and he responded promptly asking,”How many do you need and when?” Without hesitation, he offered all the boxes we needed AND trucks, and drivers.

In one night, we filled five 26-foot trucks with not an inch to spare and still had boxes we would send up later with another church’s load later in the week. We collected over $45,000 in $25 gift cards, had 400 or more volunteers receiving, sorting, boxing, loading, about 2,500 boxes, 10,000 diapers and over 100 bags of summer clothing we donated to the MS Foundation locally.

Channel 9 and Channel 7 news reporters joined us along with Sharon Bulova, Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. Everyone was astounded at what we were able to do in 48 hours.

I put a collection bin on my porch and every time I returned home from an errand, I found more clothing. The bin overflowed, filled up my porch and the sidewalk leading up to the porch. The charitable goodness of my neighbors overwhelmed me. And, by far, the most frequent comment I heard was, “Thank you for giving me an opportunity to help!”

This is just one of my carloads

We had no idea what our community could do in a weekend but when motivated purely by love and a desire to help others, we learned they could do miracles.

When the five-truck caravan arrived in New York and the back doors were opened, I hope the people there felt the love behind every jacket, pair of pants and warm quilt.

And you know what the second most often asked question was?

“What else can I do?”

I got emails from people wanting to take time off work to drive up and help. One was from a church leader in Mount Vernon that said, “I have people chomping at the bit to get up there and help! Just send me the word when it’s time and they’ll be off.”

For now, it’s hard for the rescue workers to accommodate extra people. They can’t feed and house more bodies with an infrastructure so badly ruined, but soon they will have need for manpower, and I have no doubt those calls for help will be answered swiftly and generously.

One of our church leaders was once asked how we get members of the church to do so much service. He wanted to know how we get young men to postpone college for two years while they serve missions and why older couples leave their grandchildren and aging parents to serve humanitarian missions. How do you get people to do so much?

The simple answer was this: We ask.

I’ve seen the same thing in good people everywhere over the last week.

To everyone who helped with this emergency service event, thank you.

It’s amazing how much good we can do in the world when we just respond to a simple call for help even if it’s as small as a $25 gift card, a coat, or a warm pair of mittens for a cold set of hands.

I’m overwhelmed by the goodness around me.

From the News

Hurricane Sandy and Losing Control

I like to believe I am a calm, controlled kind of woman.

So when I heard about the storm of the century heading our way, Doug and I took all the necessary precautions.

Hurricane Sandy & Marblehead [Front Street 9]
Hurricane Sandy & Marblehead [Front Street 9] (Photo credit: The Birkes)
We filled the tub with water, charged up our battery-powered lights, moved all of our deck furniture, brought in all the pumpkins and Halloween decorations, made a pot of soup, did all the laundry and checked bits of advice of preparations lists.

Then, we waited.

And watched the news.

Always a mistake. But, how do you pull yourself away from it?

The more I watched, the more my anxiety grew.

The sky darkened, the rains poured down, and the winds picked up.

I pestered Doug with questions like, “Should I move that bike out of the backyard? Should we go to the basement now?”

I also kept returning to the bags of Halloween candy like they were the last bags of candy I would ever see in my life.

Halloween Candy
Halloween Candy (Photo credit: JefferyTurner)

I wrote a couple of storm stories for the Deseret News to stay busy.

I checked Twitter and Facebook obsessively and I looked out the window repeatedly.

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

Doug told me to relax and sit down.


We  have a hurricane the size of Texas heading our way!  The weatherman says we could lose power for weeks!

How can I relax?

I could not relax.

More TV, more Twitter, more Facebook, more window watching, and more candy.

Finally, it was bedtime.

Every time I closed my eyes a gust of wind or a heavy downpour jolted me out of bed.

I kept looking toward the window to make sure the streetlights were still on.

Finally, I fell asleep and empathized with Dorothy and Toto.

The next day, I woke up and it was over.

Trees standing. Power still on. Basement dry.

Enormous relief and gratitude washed over me.

Then, I turned on the news and saw what was happening to our neighbors in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.

And while my personal worries had evaporated and my high level anxiety had subsided, I felt guilty.

Why did we get off so easy while they got totally slammed?

As I watched homeowners standing in their vanished neighborhoods holding their children and shaking their heads in disbelief, I was reminded of  how desperately we all want control over our lives and how tragedies like this prove to us that we never really have it.

When I was going through chemotherapy (a recurring theme in a lot of my blog posts, I know. I know…), I stood over my jewelry box one afternoon and dumped everything out on my dresser.

Feverishly I focused on sorting all my jewelry and organizing it neatly into little compartments.

I took such deep pleasure in that moment because I had total control over  that one small thing.

Waiting for a hurricane to land is like staring at a messy jewelry box with your hands tied behind your back.

You desperately want to put everything in its place, and you can’t.

So, you pace the floor, eat the candy, try to read a book, put it down, and keep watching disasters on TV.

Today I put the pumpkins back on the porch, the furniture back on the deck, and tried to walk away from the bags of candy.

Those small things helped my life feel normal again.

Except for the pangs of sadness I still feel for those with the overwhelming task of trying to turn chaos back into order.

In my helpless state, I looked for opportunities to help, hoping to lessen my feelings of guilt and to give me some of that elusive feeling of control over something, anything.

Maybe somebody has a jewelry box I could organize, a child I could hold, or a water bottle I could hand out.

I read an article by Sandy Wallace at, that said, “”Hurricane Sandy may have taken a lot of things away from New York and New Jersey, but the storm known as Frankenstorm and Superstorm Sandy can’t take away the resilience of the people.”

This article reminded me that this is when we choose resilience over control, and take a moment to recognize the ultimate power that resides in the elements, over which we have absolutely no control.