11/08/2012 02:43 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2013

Hurricane Sandy and the Volunteer Impulse

Jessica, an Upper East Side resident, decided she wanted to help the people still reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. She asked her friends for donations of food, toiletries and clothing and expected only enough donations to fill an SUV she and a friend were planning to drive to the Rockaways. Instead, her request for support went viral, and people from the neighborhood brought mountains of clothing, food, water and other essentials.

Startled, Jessica had to quickly find several large moving trucks -- and she found them. She needed a place for the trucks to be loaded and an Upper East Side firehouse blocked off a street for her. She needed to quickly find brigades of volunteers to accept, sort, label and load the food and supplies into the trucks she had commandeered -- and brigades of volunteers appeared. Her intention had been to accept donations until midnight -- and instead she had to stop taking them at 3:30 p.m. because the trucks couldn't take any more.

As the brigades finished loading the last truck, Jessica thanked them all and announced that she was going to try to do this every weekend in November! Trucks were the hardest to find, she later told me. But I am sure she will find them.

I was fortunate to find out about this volunteer opportunity early enough to participate. All week, I had been feeling that I wanted to do something tangible to help. In fact, I was desperate to do something. I felt frustrated that I didn't have the time to spend several days doing 12 hour shifts in a Red Cross shelter. I was grateful that we had electricity and running water all week, but my spirit was restless.

Of course, I was giving money. We were all giving money. We know that is usually the best way to respond in a situation like this -- give money so that the experts can do what needs to be done. But the impulse to help, to get our hands dirty -- to somehow ease the suffering with our own labor -- is strong.

I was forcibly reminded of how strong when my husband and I showed up on that side street. There were close to 200 people sorting and labeling boxes and bags, forming human chains to pass the supplies into the waiting trucks and cleaning up the debris. Some were standing around, soaking up the atmosphere of community and talking with neighbors. But that was only because there were so many volunteers that there were not enough tasks to go around.

It was an impressive display of volunteer spirit in action. It reminds us that people are fundamentally good and well intentioned and will do whatever is in their power to help when others are in need.