Virginia man a catalyst to widespread Sandy relief efforts


Arlington resident Matt Mendelsohn, right, and his friends load Hurricane Sandy relief items that he plans to drive to the heavily damaged Rockaway area of New York. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)
November 15, 2012

Matt Mendelsohn says he has a talent for rallying people.

But even he didn’t expect one Facebook plea to spark an effort that would pull together dozens of people from several states and generate $15,000 in less than two weeks.

It began earlier this month when Mendelsohn’s neighbor in North Arlington said she was planning to drive to New York with a U-Haul full of cleaning supplies for victims of Hurricane Sandy.

Mendelsohn offered to help. But he wanted to do more.

“I just thought, ‘How can we raise the ante a little bit?’ ”

He went to Facebook and asked for donations that would buy three generators for his neighbor to take north.

Within minutes, he had enough money for the first.

The next morning, he announced his plans to members of his gym, CrossFit Oldtown in Alexandria. A man stepped up to donate his brand-new generator.

“It was a $1,200 generator with the tags still on it,” said Mendelsohn, who has worked as a freelance photographer for The Washington Post. “At that point, it grew from there.”

He decided he would collect more and drive a van to New York himself. He chose the Rockaways, a peninsula of Long Island that was devastated by Sandy.

Mendelsohn, 49, is from Old Bethpage on Long Island. His 81-year-old mother still lives there. (She just got power back Monday.)

“My entire life, I’ve cringed at my Long Island accent,” he said.

But now, he said, he’s proud of it, and he used his background to unite people around his cause.

Family, friends and strangers started donating clothes, cleaning supplies and Home Depot gift cards.

“Every second I open my
e-mail, there are more Home
Depot cards,” he said before he headed to New York on Thursday morning.

A number of local groups have reached out to help the victims of the storm. Last week, two other Arlington County men drove to New Jersey with a U-Haul full of donations.

And offers of help keep coming.

Charlie and Jack Schiavo, brothers who are 11 and 8, respectively, used their street hockey game Monday to collect supplies for Mendelsohn’s trip. They called the event “Stick It to Sandy.”

The Arlington Hawks, a travel basketball team for sixth-grade boys, also pitched in. Members held a free-throw competition to raise money through pledges.

A former co-worker and his wife who now live in Knoxville, Tenn., saw Mendelsohn’s Facebook post.

They hadn’t talked to him in about a decade, but they collected from neighbors and shipped two large boxes full of batteries, gloves, hand warmers and extension cords his way.

A stranger in a hardware store saw Mendelsohn in line with 75 pairs of work gloves. When Mendelsohn told him what they were for, the man helped foot the bill.

“Matt was the catalyst of it all,” said Jerry Hill, owner of CrossFit Oldtown, who accompanied Mendelsohn to the Rockaways on Thursday. “One person can make a difference.”

Mendelsohn and Hill spent their time in New York emptying the U-Haul of its food, clothes, toys, cleaning supplies and Home Depot gift cards, distributing more than $15,000 in donations to people in a parking lot they came upon.

“It was unbelievable,” Mendelsohn said.

“Just amazing,” Hill added.

They met a man who had all of his furniture out in his yard, including a waterlogged grand piano. They gave him supplies and stuffed about $1,000 worth of Home Depot gift cards into his hands.

“His entire house is on his front lawn,” Mendelsohn said. “He’s going to need a lot more than that.”

They met a woman with three children who barely spoke English. They put together a care package for her family that included kids’ toys.

They stopped on the side of the road to give a couple who were sweeping sand off their property more Home Depot gift cards.

And by the time they had been on the road back to Virginia a half-hour, Mendelsohn was planning his next effort.

“There’s so much need,” he said. “This is just the beginning.

“These same people who need clothes today are going to need clothes in four weeks.”

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