From hurricanes in Puerto Rico and Texas, the earthquake in Mexico, and the California fires, this Thanksgiving millions of people are suffering from natural disasters. One million people went without electricity in Puerto Rico. 15,500 homes in Texas have been destroyed. 3,500 properties in Northern California have been burnt down. And 360 homes in Mexico were still in danger of collapsing a week after the earthquake in Mexico. The repairs are moving too slowly. As a healthy, 20-year-old, New School literature major, I think it’s time for us to give back.

Raised in a Christian family in Connecticut, helping those in need was important to my parents. Every year, my mother raised money for breast cancer awareness walks and my father donated to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. My past experiences doing service as an adult helped shaped my perspective on this year’s natural disasters.

In 2016, I set out for the 7 a.m. ferry toward Staten Island to help rebuild a home with Habitat For Humanity—a volunteer-based organization that helps rebuild properties for those in need. I quickly learned that people in Staten Island were still suffering from the loss and damages of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It had been four years since the hurricane hit, and homes still were in need of rebuilding.

That day we were assigned to rebuild a basement from the ground up. 70 miles per hour winds and torrential downpours had flooded many houses in Staten Island, and most people didn’t have good insurance for repairs.

We were ready to work. As I walked up the gravel driveway and into the backyard, Joe, a 50-year-old, heavy-set man, waited on his back-porch. He emanated gratitude before I could shake his hand.

“Hey there. Thanks for coming,” Joe said. He smiled at us from his porch, the relief settling in on his face. As the day went on, we all got down and dirty—turning cement mixture, “buttering” the tiles, and laying them down with precision. It took me two weeks to get the stains out of my jeans. But it was worth it, seeing the smile that came over Joe’s face when he occasionally came down to check-in on us.

“As long as it’s all level, I’m happy,” he said.

“Don’t worry, Joe, my perfectionism will make you proud,” I joked. Joe shared he had been battling his wife’s cancer for years which had buried him in medical bills. This made it difficult to afford the construction he desperately needed on his house.

“My wife passed away exactly one month and two days ago,” he said. My heart sank. Joe wasn’t just a victim of a hurricane. He became a man that was trying to put his life back together, to feel a sense of stability once again. Though I was only an undergrad, I felt grateful to be with him that day, to help him in any way possible.

The importance of giving-back touched me. Joe reminded me that everyone is battling hardship in their lives and to be a victim of a natural disaster magnifies their problems even more. The necessity to help increases tremendously when you remember that we all need someone to lean on. If it wasn’t for Habitat For Humanity, I’m not sure how long Joe would have waited to restore his basement. I never spoke to Joe again after helping fix up his basement, but he came back into my memory when more natural disasters hit.

Direct service is one way I’ve given. I’ve also skipped a weekend of fun-night-outs to save money for ViequesLove, a non-profit organization that is helping to rebuild Vieques, Puerto Rico. Raising money has recently gotten easier with Facebook’s new donate button. Simply make a donation post on your profile and it will generate a button that allows friends to support the organization you donated to.

This Thanksgiving, instead of running to the Black Friday sales, like the 101.7 million people who did last year, donate to a foundation working towards relief efforts.

Or , if you’re having people over, create a charity box where all of your guests can contribute. Once the money is collected, transfer it safely to a reliable food bank organization for natural disaster victims. Feeding America is non-profit organization that works to feed hurricane victims of Maria, Irma and Harvey. It is never too late to give back.  I helped Joe four years after Hurricane Sandy.

We can make the American Thanksgiving a day of gratefulness and compassion for those who are not at our table.

Illustration by Ashlie Juarbe

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