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Full-time service in Sandy's wake coming to an end for Mormon Helping Hands

Published: Monday, Dec. 3 2012 11:50 a.m. MST

“I’ve heard people refer to us as ‘the little yellow army of happiness,’ or ‘the yellow angels,’” he said, referring to the yellow “Mormon Helping Hands” vests worn by all LDS service volunteers. “People would be sort of overwhelmed, not knowing what to do or where to start. And then we’d come in with all of these smiling faces and start pulling stuff out of their houses. Pretty soon the residents would come to, and step in with us.”

In addition to the missionaries, those “smiling faces” have also included thousands of LDS volunteers like Elise Faust, a high school teacher and a member of the Union Square Young Single Adult Ward in New York City’s financial district. Although a victim of storm damage herself — she just recently was allowed to move back into her apartment after the building was evacuated for more than three weeks for electrical and structural repairs — she has joined members of her ward in making weekly trips to the harder-hit Rockaways to serve others.

“The first two weeks after the storm the singles wards in our area canceled church services on Sunday so we could go out into the community to help,” Faust said. “The family wards did their service on Saturdays. Then we switched for one week so we could serve on Saturday and have our regular church meetings on Sunday. This week we’re going to go out on Saturday again.”

The work is hard and physically demanding, including tearing out drywall, flooring and insulation, hauling out damaged furniture and disinfecting unclean and unsafe areas. Faust proudly notes that the young women in her ward work shoulder to shoulder with the young men despite what she calls “hard, physical, manual labor.”

“Girls are pretty strong,” Faust said. Calderwood agreed, noting with a smile that among his missionaries, “my sisters can outwork my elders.”

While the hard work is “definitely a sacrifice,” Faust says that “if the Savior were here, he would be out in the Rockaways all the time.”

“Me giving one day a week is not that much,” she said.

Emily Hardman, communications director for the Becket Fund, a non-profit organization that works to protect religious freedom, said she finds the physical work exhilarating.

“You have this huge crowbar and you’re hacking at a wall with everything you’ve got,” said Hardman, who traveled to New York from where she lives in Arlington, Va., along with other members of the Colonial 1st Singles Ward. “It’s really kind of therapeutic to be in there demolishing this thing.”

But as satisfying as the physical labor is, Hardman said “just knowing that you were doing something for something that they could not do for themselves” left her smiling.

“When people would see our yellow vests they would cheer and say, ‘the Mormons are here again,’” she said. “It’s great to serve and to help to be part of something so meaningful to so many people.”

Zmuda, who works professionally as director of asset development for Catholic Charities, said the combined efforts of different religious organizations provided an opportunity for different faith groups to serve together and become comfortable with each other. He spoke of arriving at a Catholic-run distribution center, where about 120 people were standing in line for food.

“The truck they were using was empty, and there were still a lot of people needing food and other resources,” Zmuda said. “Then we arrive with this big Deseret Industries truck full of food and supplies, and you could see the enthusiasm grow. It was almost like the cavalry coming — the timing was perfect.”

The best part of the experience, according to Zmjuda, was watching the “chain gang” form to unload the truck.

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