ALAMEDA -- While Michelle Carney's classmates tore open presents and avoided conversations with awkward relatives, the 20-year-old UC Berkeley junior and Alameda resident was thousands of miles away from home, helping with disaster relief on the storm-ravaged East Coast.
An active member of the American Red Cross at Cal club, Carney was deployed to Rockaway, N.Y., one of the areas hit hardest by Superstorm Sandy last October. Although volunteering meant not being able to celebrate the holidays with family and friends, Carney said she could not imagine spending that time any other way.
A borough of Queens in New York City, Rockaway is an island directly facing the Atlantic Ocean and took the full brunt of the powerful storm. Months later, thousands of Rockaway residents still remain without heat or electricity, and many live in homes damaged by water and mold. Add in freezing temperatures and 50 mph winds, and it's no surprise that the college student's family was somewhat apprehensive about the trip.
"They understand that it's something that I've wanted to do for a really long time but haven't been able to do because of school," Carney said.
While most of her friends supported the decision, Carney said she also encountered some unexpected negative reactions.
"People just hear number and don't think that there are families out there," she said.
According to a December survey by nonprofit New York Communities for Change, almost one-third of Rockaway residents were still without heat and approximately 10 percent had no electricity. Direct subway service to the area is not expected to resume until the spring, and grocery stores were still shuttered.
Carney had taken a disaster training course from the Red Cross a year before but discovered that "no course you could've taken could have prepared you for that."
Carney received just 24 hours' notice of the Dec. 20 deployment, and was assigned to mass care feeding.
"I showed up really late at night, took an orientation course the next morning and then I was sent out to the field," she said. That first day, Carney was promoted from service assistant to supervisor and put in charge of the two Rockaway sites. Although deployments are typically two weeks long, Carney requested an extension and remained on duty until Jan. 5.
"It was really great to be out there," recalled Carney shortly after returning to the Bay Area. "I felt like I really impacted people's lives."
Carney oversaw two warming tents that also served two meals per day to hundreds of Rockaway residents, who, according to Carney, are primarily lower-income or elderly. Demand was so high that many waited up to 30 minutes in the rain for a hot meal.
"We were dealing with people who had lost everything," Carney recalled. "If their house didn't burn down in an electrical fire there was mold damage. I was amazed that even though they had lost so much ... they were so happy to be there."
Carney supervised up to 50 volunteers each day, as well as routine operations and client relations until the large wedding-style tents, a poor match against the gusty winds, became structurally unsound and were taken down shortly after Christmas and replaced with mobile food trucks.
Although she stayed in a hotel close to the Red Cross headquarters in downtown Manhattan, volunteering meant waking up at 4 a.m. and returning at 7 p.m., a schedule not very conducive to sightseeing. Each morning, Carney battled Manhattan traffic with a van-full of volunteers, driving almost an hour to Rockaway.
Carney, a microbiology and cognitive science double major, became involved with the campus Red Cross club purely by accident: As a spring admission, she had moved to Berkeley a semester early and was in search of something to do before sumbling across a campus blood drive.
Former club president and current national collegiate officer Salman Qasim, 21, remembers the freshman's eagerness to personally help others.
"The Red Cross, by and large, doesn't really emphasize college volunteering for this program because they don't think college students have the time to leave what they're doing," Qasim said. "That was a big deal when Michelle actually got deployed. It's pretty unique."
Carney said she only encountered several college students among the Rockaway volunteers.
According to Qasim, the American Red Cross at Cal club will be offering disaster relief training for its members in March, as well as a DeCal class taught by Carney and two other students, which is open to the entire campus community.
When asked if she would volunteer nationally again, Carney answered without any hesitation: "Absolutely."