Not a joke this time

Jul. 14, 2013 @ 02:54 PM

Have you heard this one?

A psychiatrist and a social worker, an IT guy, a doctoral student and a scientist all walk into a house. They walk out with a bed, a dresser, a chair, a computer table and more.
Well, no, it’s not a joke. When a disaster happens, it’s never a joke.
Two weeks ago, disaster happened. It’s the kind of thing you read about or see on TV that happens to other people, on the shores of New Jersey or the harsh plains of Oklahoma. This time, it happened to our son.
He was one of the dozens of local residents flooded out during a torrential rainstorm — his apartment trashed, most of his possessions gone, the accumulated effects of a life rolled over by a tide of mud.
But this isn’t a story of loss and devastation. Instead, it’s the story of community and support, of friendship and the idea of paying it forward. Rather than loss, it’s the story of what we’ve all gained.
Make no mistake, he is fortunate. Unlike many — probably most — of those affected by the flooding, we and our son have some resources and access to others. He has a new place to live. But the most important resource he had was the support of his community, the one he knew and the one he only knows now.
My wife and I were out of town when the flood came. Close friends took our son in and ferried out what little was untouched by the encroaching mold. On the days that followed, after we arrived, other friends helped disengage the apartment, braving the stench, squishing through the mud, searching for what was salvageable, dumping what was not, transporting what might be saved to our house and garage.
Technology may be dehumanizing and making us increasingly insular and isolated, but it’s an extraordinarily effective tool that just as easily can build community. Through email and texts, he and we let friends and family know what had happened. We asked our neighborhood for whatever help they could provide.
We were overwhelmed.
Did he need a chair or an end table? A computer desk and a desk chair? Could he use a TV and a TV stand? A sofa and dining chairs? Here was a dehumidifier to help dry out what had been damp. Here was help, strong arms and two trucks, to move the furniture that had been offered. That’s when the psychiatrist, social worker, IT guy, doctoral student and scientist bonded in sweaty labor.
People near and far sent messages of hope and encouragement and concern. Close friends, colleagues and distant neighbors, some of whom none of us truly knew, came forward, saying they wanted to do something, offering what they could.
An envelope with our son’s name on it was placed by our front door. Inside was a short handwritten note, explaining that a household expense had cost less than expected and here was the difference to pay it forward, a little something to help out in a time of need. It was signed, simply, “a neighbor.”
It was a sign of simple kindness. And that’s no joke.
Neil Offen can be reached at