When looking back on all of those who came to help Rockaway after Hurricane Sandy, Team Rubicon is at the top of many lists. It’s a name that stuck with people and is often recommended by locals as the go-to organization to donate to when a disaster strikes, anywhere in the world. After all, they know this veteran-led organization will have boots on the ground providing real help to those who need it most, just as they did for many in Rockaway. And it’s an organization that civilians can now join to help in relief missions. After Hurricane Ian struck Florida, Rockaway native Kathy Baken, knew just where to enlist.
Growing up in Rockaway and having friends and family still in the area, Baken knows what it’s like to watch loved ones’ lives turned upside down by a natural disaster. “When Sandy hit, my cousin lived in the yellow townhouses along Shore Front near the Irish Circle and my aunt lived on a canal in Broad Channel, so we spent a lot of time there after Sandy, helping as much as we could,” she said. At times, the gut, pump and demolition process even became therapeutic. “I was in my aunt’s house in Broad Channel taking a sledgehammer to the walls and I said to her, ‘This is not how I wanted to do this, but I always wanted to do this.’ You get out so much frustration swinging a hammer,” she said.
Now living in Florida for four months, as Baken watched her new neighbors, just two and a half hours away in Lee and Charlotte Counties, get pounded by a storm that looked all too familiar, she knew she had to help. And she turned to a reliable source.
“Jean Belford in Rockaway is my longest best friend and I remember her telling me about Team Rubicon and how phenomenal they were, going into homes during Sandy. And I got to see it firsthand. My cousin, Sarah, was helped by them. We had gone in, and she had the boardwalk at her front door, and we were trying to get stuff out of the house. Team Rubicon came in and helped and gutted some of her walls,” Baken said. Those memories stayed with her. And she’s donated to TR whenever a disaster strikes.
So when Hurricane Ian hit Florida, she thought about doing more. “Ian hit and I thought, I wonder if I can join them?” Though veteran led, Baken was pleasantly surprised to find that Team Rubicon now accepts civilian help on their relief missions. “They encourage it now. It helps them integrate into society after serving. Years ago, three veterans had come back from Iraq, and they went to Haiti after the earthquake to help those people and they came back and talked about starting an organization to do more. They put it off, but one person kept reaching out, saying ‘can we do something,’ and unfortunately, he ultimately committed suicide. They realized that in him asking to go out and help, he was also looking for help for himself,” Baken said. “Soon after, Team Rubicon formed, and they really are on the frontlines doing the hard work when disaster strikes.”
Baken wanted to do her part. After undergoing a background check and completing an online training, on October 17, Baken found herself driving down to Punta Gorda, Fl to meet her TR team and help in whatever way she could. “There were five of us in a team and we had a team leader in the military who took us to two different homes in this trailer park,” Baken said. She spent four days working with her team to help elderly residents. “Both were elderly people who could’ve never done the work themselves. The first was a WWII survivor. She was so funny. She kept saying, ‘I lived through WWII, I’ll live through this, I just want to make sure my house is healthy.’ We ripped up her carpet, and could see mold growing in the ceiling and in the insulation. In one bedroom, we took out a whole ceiling and the kitchen ceiling and bathrooms,” Baken said. That first task was rewarding in itself. “She was just so relieved. She’s crying and you’re crying, and it was just one of those moments where your worries are taken away. You don’t realize what an impact you’re having,” she said.
Then they moved on to another home. “Another couple in their 80s had no insurance and their kids lived up north, but they came down to take a lot of stuff out and put it in the trash, but the towns weren’t picking up the trash if it wasn’t properly separated, so we had to separate it for them. There were piles of steel and the smell was so horrendous, but you do it because they can’t do it. They also had a sunroom with a lot of water damage, so we took off all the paneling and if we saw anything growing in the insulation, we removed that for them,” she said.
In addition to getting her hands dirty, having seen a similar situation 10 years earlier, Baken was able to provide some emotional support. “You have empathy for the people who are going through it. It’s easy enough to rip out a wall but when you meet these people for the first time and know they’re just living in this, that is the biggest thing. It’s more than just supporting them on an emotional level, you meet all these neighbors who just want to tell you their story. There were a lot of tears but we’re able to tell them, ‘Today is hard, but it will get better.’ I know that firsthand after seeing it get better from Sandy,” she said.
Despite only having limited time to volunteer, Baken says those four days were life changing. “In a weird way, it was one of the best experiences of my life because you really get close with the people you’re working with. You’re sleeping in small quarters, sharing everything morning, day and night and they were really incredible people,” Baken said. “And they made me feel included. I think I was the only civilian, but I had an amazing team and they knew I felt like an outsider, so with Rubicon, everyone gets patches as a reward for doing something good, and one team member handed me one of his patches and said, ‘No one is an outsider here.’”
And with that, Baken says it won’t be her last time volunteering with Team Rubicon. “Once you join, you’re part of the organization forever, so every time there’s a disaster, they’ll ask if you can come help,” she said. “I look forward to doing more.”
To donate toward Team Rubicon or for information on volunteer opportunities, see: www.teamrubiconusa.org