A Conversation with Melissa Berman

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Berman

By Mara Certic

Melissa Berman is the co-founder of the Facebook-run volunteer group East End Cares, and spoke about some of its fundraising efforts, as well as her upcoming trip to Greece to help with the refugee crisis there.

How did East End Cares begin?

 Well it’s not really an official organization, even though it is kind of perceived as one. We started out as just a group of about six who met right after Hurricane Sandy. I had been getting a lot of calls, because I’d done some volunteer work in the past. We met at Gurney’s to come up with a plan and I said, let’s start a Facebook page. Within 20 minutes we had 800 members, and now we’re close to 4,000. We decided not to become a 501c3 and just be a conduit to help people. We did a lot of great stuff after Sandy. We’ve supported the work of local people who have gone to help in various places, including the Philippines. If the Retreat needs coats, we use our network. Any time there’s a need for volunteers or a need for helping people, we get involved. We have a pretty active community.

How did you decide to go and spend Thanksgiving pitching in with volunteers in Greece?

The problems in Syria have been going on for a while, and I’ve been following it personally. Last year we did a hat and scarf collection for a woman who was traveling to volunteer at a refugee camp in Jordan. The group is originally from Seattle, and she went to go to art therapy with kids in the camp. But I just wanted to go and do a little more. After local photographer Doug Kuntz went to Greece, I met with him and asked what we could do to support. It’s a monumentally historic thing that’s happening right now. Emma Newbury, a Montauk local and recent graduate of SUNY Purchase, is also coming with me. She’s such a good-hearted person. She and I were talking about the situation when she decided to go. I said to her, even if all we do is show up, and refugees see that there are Americans, and people from other countries, who care about them, well then I think everything else you do after that is kind of a bonus.

When do you leave? 

We leave on November 25, the day before Thanksgiving, and I’m going to be coming back here on December 7. But if people want to come as well, they can go whenever they want. This isn’t going to be a guided tour, by any means, but I know they need people. All of us going need to have a really, really strong sense of flexibility. Know that you might spend the whole day cleaning up a beach, or an entire day just making sandwiches. Or maybe we’ll be on the beaches at 3 a.m., helping people who have just arrived on boats. I think we just need to go with a willingness to do whatever is needed. Doug’s there, and he’s identifying needs there. There is also a local group on the ground, run by this woman who owns a restaurant in Molyvos, a town on the North Coast of the Island. She’s now running a relief effort out of her restaurant. I might plug some of our volunteers in there, because they’re so aware of what’s going on throughout the island.

What can people who might not be able to travel to Greece do to help? Are there specific things that you need?

Well it’s hard because they need everything. People are coming up on the beaches in rubber rafts 24 hours a day. And they just have a makeshift volunteer group—it’s a handful of disparate volunteers doing everything that is needed—they’re so short-handed. For this effort, we’re partnering with a nonprofit called Do Your Part. They don’t take any admin fees, it’s a real clean group. They’re based out of California and they’re really efficient and effective—they do disaster relief. We have a fundraiser where people can make tax-deductible donations. I think it’s important for us to buy stuff locally—Greece has been going through economic turmoil, and I think collecting money here and then buying things there might be the best thing we can do.

For more information, or to get involved, “like” East End Cares on Facebook, and follow the projects it has leading up to its trip in November. If anyone is interested in going to Greece themselves, e-mail Amanda.bickerstaff@gmail.com, who has all the relevant information.

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