When asked for a comment on life one year after Sandy, Rich Cantwell of Friends of Freeport replies, “We’re still busy.”
What started as a group of friends getting together to gut and rehabilitate storm damaged homes – “neighbors helping neighbors,” Mr. Cantwell calls it – has evolved to the point at which the group anticipates working on five different houses in one weekend, not counting what he refers to as “odd jobs.” On a weekday the group responded to a request from a residence on Stirling Place for a house that needed to be painted, interrupted by a call from the Salvation Army on behalf of a woman who needed some of her belongings moved. The organization will also be taking part in the construction of a new playground at the Recreation Center.
Friends of Freeport’s facebook page now includes over 1,600 “friends,” whose support is a source of encouragement. “The people on the sidelines count...Every week people, even from out of state, write e-mails saying, ‘I like what your doing, how can I help?’ ” The regular work on homes is done by a core group of about 40-70 volunteers. As the organization has grown, fulfilling its mission has become more complicated. “Sometimes the task of feeding our volunteers is difficult in itself.” he says.
He uses a two-word phrase to describe those growing pains: “case management.” At the beginning, it was just about going to a house and saying, “we want to help.” As the work of Friends of Freeport has grown larger, it has received financial support from other organizations (the Robin Hood Foundation, for one.) But with that money comes rules that must be followed in order to ensure that that money is spent properly.
Although case management is supposed to help navigate the paper and other challenges needed to ensure accountability, Mr. Cantwell lamented the reality that “every organization has different rules” and when more than one is involved, “these agencies don’t talk to one another.”
Still, Friends of Freeport has succeeded because it’s managed to keep itself above some of the disputes surrounding storm recovery. Some time ago Mr. Cantwell declared, “My agenda is not political – I just want to find how to get people back in their homes.”
How much longer?
“Friends of Freeport will go on,” Mr. Cantwell says. A lot of friendships have been formed among the organization’s volunteers. But ask him when the work connected with this storm will end, he finds it difficult to answer. Despite the important contribution this group has made, much needs to be done (the Salvation Army has a list of 300 homes still needing attention). “At some point results will end,” he said – but sees the task of cleaning up after Sandy in Freeport as taking at least another year.”
In previous conversation Mr. Cantwell stresses the concept of a COAD – an organization ready to step in and aid the community when the next emergency strikes. He stresses that that effort is in progress, but subject to time and schedule constraints. “I have my job to look to – and my Friends of Freeport job – and my grandparenting job.”