Hofstra Pulse Magazine

SandyBaggers and Pop-Up Yoga; grassroots movements aid post-Sandy

Entrepreneurs come together to provide relief.

By Gabby Anania

watchSandyBaggers on a donated bus heading to volunteer in the Rockaways. Photo Credit: SandyBaggers

SandyBaggers on a donated bus heading to volunteer in the Rockaways.
Photo Credit: SandyBaggers

Antonia Dunbar was sifting through a woman’s drawer prying apart her personal belongings while the woman’s daughter sat outside throwing away everything from the first floor that wasn’t a salvageable family photo. One drawer of clothes weighed 50 pounds, soaking wet. So she picked these possessions apart, helping the woman toss them.

“It’s things you wouldn’t even think about,” said Dunbar, who describes herself as “eternally youthful, stopped counting when I was 28,” of New York, NY. “How heartbreaking it is for people to have to go through that. But the good part was that so many people didn’t lose the life of someone they loved, they just really lost all their possessions.”

Dunbar is one of five entrepreneur-founders of SandyBaggers, a grassroots movement that started after Sandy to take charge and get help to those who needed it.

From a cable-free house in Astoria, Dunbar remembers watching the cable news with her husband at her landlord’s home as they cared for his dog during the storm. “For the first time, I was able to see play-by-play the storm happen,” she said.

Sitting in front of the television, Dunbar updated her husband and chatted with her entrepreneur friends online. “They know how to act without structure, top-down, telling them to do stuff,” Dunbar said of her friends. Naturally, they were anxious to help these people they saw on TV. This was happening in their backyard.

The power of the media played out before them. “I saw how when the storm happened, the reporters going to cover the chaos, how those areas would then get assistance,” said Dunbar. “I saw how some people could really live in a bubble.”

Their original efforts to get help to those who weren’t receiving it were met with frustration. “Red Cross didn’t get back to me for almost a week and a half,” said Dunbar. “And when they did it was an automated email.”

They went to Chinatown to help through the New York City Council and only grew more frustrated. Dunbar and friends delivered food from prepackaged kits to the elderly who couldn’t get out of their high-rises without working elevators. “The problem was that we all speak English and a lot of these people spoke Mandarin,” said Dunbar. “It was absolutely chaotic.”

SandyBaggers logo designed by co-founder Matthew Kochman. Photo Credit: SandyBaggers

SandyBaggers’ logo designed by co-founder Matthew Kochman.
Photo Credit: SandyBaggers

After a week of trying to work through established measures, the five SandyBaggers founders invited friends on their Facebook page to their first drive in Union Square. Within two hours, more than 40 volunteers showed up to send-off carloads of supplies to Staten Island and Far Rockaway.

Invigorated, Dunbar said the team wanted to go bigger, so the next weekend they had two buses donated by Uber, a taxi-texting service, and New York City Council Member Christine Quinn donated another two buses. Four buses went to the Rockaways and Staten Island, packed with SandyBaggers ready to help. “This really just showed us the power of social media, the power of getting action behind a real time scenario and the power of the people,” said Dunbar.

There were still challenges for this highly-motivated group. After helping for several consecutive weekends there were still people without electricity and hazardous basements full of soaking wet mementos. It was disparaging for Dunbar to see the Far Rockaways going on their fifth week of destitution like this.

Piles of donations collected from the Union Square drive. Photo Credit: SandyBaggers

Piles of donations collected from the Union Square drive.
Photo Credit: SandyBaggers

They went where they felt they were needed, but the team struggled to balance their service with their personal lives. The five at the head of the movement juggled their own career commitments. Dunbar was starting her first company, THINX, and the other four were running existing companies, launching startups on the side. “We’re blessed to be entrepreneurs and have more of a flexible schedule but it was a time crunch and there was so much need. It was overwhelming,” said Dunbar. “If an email went unanswered, that would suck. I’d hate that.”

Despite witnessing the slowness of bureaucracy and time-availability issues, the exhilaration from helping kept them focused. “Having four buses go out, that was a high,” said Dunbar. “Seeing people mobilized was such a high.”

SandyBaggers took it into their own hands. They just knocked on doors to see if neighborhoods needed help or if they knew anyone who did. “Highs were definitely knowing that we were being helpful,” said Dunbar. After one of the last days volunteering, SandyBaggers rented out a hotel room just to hang out and exchange stories. “It just felt really good to know that we had all played a part in getting people to serve for humanity. That’s what life is all about, just taking care of each other and helping when there is need. We’re all connected in this thing called life,” she said.

SandyBaggers founders (from left to right) Matthew Kochman, Antonia Dunbar, Daniel Husserl, Divya Kapasi and Jonathan Swerdlin. Photo Credit: SandyBaggers

SandyBaggers founders (from left to right) Matthew Kochman, Antonia Dunbar, Daniel Husserl, Divya Kapasi and Jonathan Swerdlin.
Photo Credit: SandyBaggers

By December, there was less need for pure removal and more need for skilled professionals. “But we know that now, because that FB page still exists, we could tap into that in a moments notice in the next disaster,” said Dunbar. “It’s definitely a network that’s still active.”

Morgan English, 26, a social media and PR consultant for SandyBaggers, is helping the group branch out into its next stages. She is working with friend and yoga teacher Angelica Olstad, 27, New York, NY to start fundraising events to further aid in recovery.

English could relate all too well to those she has been helping. A Florida native, her and her family lost their entire house after a storm. “The benefit of that was that for every hard time you go through, regardless of what it is, you can find a way to turn it into an asset by going to someone similar and saying ‘I know what you’re going through. I feel it. How can I help?’” she said. “I’m in a position to help and say we can absolutely rebuild, and I’m speaking from experience because I rebuilt. It comes around full circle. That was for a reason.”

English was coordinating a Union Square donation drive the same day SandyBaggers coordinated their first successful drive. Friends with one of the SandyBaggers founders, the two decided to merge. They got about 2,000 pounds of donations and didn’t know where they were going to store everything. “Some hadn’t even heard about the drive, just figured people would be in Union Square,” said English. “We mobilized really quickly. We thought, ‘This has taken on a life of its own. Let’s formalize this a bit.’”

English took on the role of managing the needs and picking up the slack in NYC while the other SandyBaggers were mobile. “We gave people the feeling ‘we’re not alone, nobody forgot about us; they showed up,’” she said. Though she’s been through Hurricane Andrew, Hurricane Charlie and a slew of other storms in Florida, she added, “I’ve never seen people mobilize so quickly and efficiently as they did in NYC and I’m touched by that.”

SandyBaggers loading up cars with donations for the Rockaways. Photo Credit: SandyBaggers

SandyBaggers loading up cars with donations for the Rockaways.
Photo Credit: SandyBaggers

She was invigorated. The SandyBaggers’ enthusiasm for helping their neighbors was contagious. “It restored my faith that there are so many more people focused on a solution than they are focused on a problem.”

In December, Olstad came to her to coordinate a Sandy fundraising class through her company, Pop-Up Yoga. All the proceeds went directly to a business in Staten Island. “They all wanted to go to a yoga class that week anyway and they wanted to help,” said English.

Olstad approached English after the New Year saying she wanted to incorporate this into her business model and regularly hold events completely not-for-profit. “Her energy was so lovely that I was on board 100 percent.”

Pop-Up Yoga and SandyBaggers unite for a class to benefit Staten Island. Photo Credit: SandyBaggers

Pop-Up Yoga and SandyBaggers unite for a class to benefit Staten Island.
Photo Credit: SandyBaggers

The two organized Pop-Up Yoga events for every Tuesday and Thursday with all proceeds benefiting the Rockaway Beach Surf Club.
English is optimistic about recovery. “When people focus on the problem, all you see is the problem,” she said. ”But when you focus on all of the people solving the problem, all you see are solutions everywhere.”

English said it’s a lot easier to be positive when you have past storm experience but that positivity is what people respond to. “You realize it’s just stuff. The relationships with people become much more important. That’s nice to know. You can have everything, you can have nothing, and you’re fine as long as you’re with people that are supporting you. You can get through anything.”

Supporting people was Olstad’s rationale when she founded Pop-Up Yoga NYC. “I had been teaching at a studio,” she said, “and I was having difficulty reaching out to my musician and artist friends and other people who couldn’t afford to drop $18 on a yoga class.”

Setting up for the donation based event at Pushcart Coffee in NYC. Photo Credit: SandyBaggers

Setting up for the donation based event at Pushcart Coffee in NYC.
Photo Credit: SandyBaggers

On a mission to make yoga affordable, she went to the market across the street and organized their first event. Not having to pay for studio time, her plan to make yoga affordable became a reality. “The initial concept to make it really affordable through free or donation,” said Olstad, “and ever since then we’ve just been doing a lot of events.”

During Sandy, Olstad was staying with her boyfriend in the Lower East Side, where they lost power for a week, and she was unable to get back to her unaffected apartment in Williamsburg because of closed bridges. “It was very strange. It was like a post-apocalyptic New York City in that area without water, power or electricity.”

Olstad was intrigued by the difference in situations with the plight of an elderly friend without amenities downtown, and the shopping and laughter of friends in the Upper West Side following the storm. “It was really interesting to see that divide in the city: the neighborhoods that got completely affected and the ones that were completely fine,” she said.

A few weeks after the storm she coordinated Pop-Up Yoga’s first charity based event with English, and decided to take the business in that direction for the New Year. “It just felt right. I wanted to stick with a grassroots approach. We have a good formula here, and it feels really good to give back to the community.”

View from outside Pushcart Coffee as yogis practice for a cause. Photo Credit: SandyBaggers

View from outside Pushcart Coffee as yogis practice for a cause.
Photo Credit: SandyBaggers

March’s events, Pop-Up Yoga in NYC and Williamsburg every Tuesday and Thursday, and one giant wrap party at the end of the month, benefited the Rockaway Beach Surf Club, which is doing work to reconstruct the coastline. “We saw a lot of commonalities between yogis and surfers,” Olstad added.

For the spring and summer, Olstad has more classes planned to give back to New York communities. “I feel very strongly about it, this mutual reciprocity,” she said of the company’s direction.

Though her next projects aren’t dedicated to Sandy, she is aware that recovery is still ongoing. “The more I do this, the more I’m realizing how much work is being put into Sandy relief efforts, and how much more we can do.”

English thought back to that night that SandyBaggers gathered to hang out and share their stories. “It’s not about what did you lose, or how terrible was it, or what’s the problem still. It’s more about who did you meet? Did people show up? Did you develop new friendships? What’s your hope for the future? What did you learn?”

moMorgan English, 26, (right) stretching during a Pop-Up Yoga fundraiser. Photo Credit: SandyBaggers

Morgan English, 26, (right) stretching during a Pop-Up Yoga fundraiser.
Photo Credit: SandyBaggers

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