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Social media make helping personal

By Katie Walmsley, CNN
updated 10:42 AM EST, Fri November 30, 2012
Volunteer Candice Osborne is able to quickly respond to the needs of Superstorm Sandy victims with the help of social media.
Volunteer Candice Osborne is able to quickly respond to the needs of Superstorm Sandy victims with the help of social media.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Social media are helping volunteers connect with those in need in real time
  • After the storm there were as many as 700 groups with "Sandy" in the title
  • Helping through social media means people can reach out personally

(CNN) -- It has been in operation only since October 30, but the Facebook page for "Giving back to those affected by Sandy" has a longer timeline than most Facebook members.

The page, started by the group "BK girls give back," began as a way to help people stranded in areas with no cell service or way to communicate after the superstorm. Soon, it took on a life of its own. Shelters in need of supplies, residents in need of a ride, organizations needing volunteers and even people who lost and found pets all posted on the timeline.

"The page was started for us to just keep track of our friends and family that needed help," said Christina Karaba, one of the "BK girls" and an employee of Turner Broadcasting, CNN's parent company. She says they've had 1.2 million hits.

"Giving back" is just one of many pages, like "Help Brooklyn," "Sandy HELP," "Surviving Sandy" and "Sandybaggers," where people looking to help victims of the storm come together to share information. Indeed, Facebook says, after the storm, there were as many as 700 groups with "Hurricane Sandy" in the title.

One page, "Hurricane Sandy Acts of Kindness," lists posts from those looking to help victims and those looking to highlight acts of kindness toward the storm's victims. Stories fill the page, from someone paying the hair salon bill of a woman who'd lost everything in the storm to a family delivering food to those without power.

Many have taken to Twitter to promote fundraising events. "I'm buying all my holiday gifts this year at this amazing pop-up in NY benefitting #hurricanesandy victims," tweeted Gail Zinser. "go shop!"

For the most part, Facebook communities looking to help storm victims don't solicit cash. Karaba says her team doesn't handle any money. She refers to them as "help brokers."

"You come to us when you need help and come to us when you want to help. ... We're making the help connections."

Volunteers carry supplies to a grass-roots relief hub for Superstorm Sandy\'s victims in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Volunteers carry supplies to a grass-roots relief hub for Superstorm Sandy's victims in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Where Twitter is often a vehicle for publicity, many people and businesses turned the tables, tweeting offers of help, including free legal advice, clothing drives and pet and child care.

Although nonprofits are frequently focused on the big picture, social media communities are able to respond in real time to calls for help, no matter the nature. It's a bonus for those who either can't afford to or don't want to merely donate funds and trust they'll get where they're needed but want to reach out personally.

The page "Adopt a Family, Hurricane Sandy" is working to help those whose homes were destroyed or who still lack power to find temporary accommodation with hosts. One update urged people to host older couples: "Everyone wants the kids, but these people have worked their whole life in order to finally enjoy it and now DON"T HAVE INSURANCE to help rebuild." A response from someone a day later: "I'd be happy to help a hardworking adult who needs a bit of help getting on their feet."

Sandy victims outraged over power bills
Statue of Liberty after Superstorm Sandy

Another page connected those who'd lost the use of their homes with others who were interested in hosting them for Thanksgiving dinner. Now it's spawned a page for those who want to invite families for Christmas also.

Twitter users also took to the site to urge people to take in families. "NYers can host a family displaced by #HurricaneSandy for Thanksgiving," tweeted Peter S. Greenberg. "that's just 1 way to give back."

The potential of social media communities to help with unique situations is notable. In many instances, they've simply provided a logistical platform for those who have lost something or need items or help. Many tweeted requests for supplies or manpower. The "Hurricane Sandy's Lost Treasures" page is devoted to helping reunite owners with found objects. The site displays photos and letters found in various locations; the hope is they'll be reclaimed.

There are also several pages specifically aimed to help those who have lost pets in the storm, such as "Hurricane Sandy lost and found pets," which has more than 26,000 likes. Under a photo of a squinting gray tabby being petted, one woman wrote, "I will adopt him if you don't find the owners."

Much of the appeal of "Helping Sandy" social media groups is their ability to specialize. They run the gamut from the general to the very specific.

"Help The Babies Affected By Hurricane Sandy" is collecting supplies for affected families in Long Island. The page thanks families from as far away as Washington state for donations of toys and clothing.

There's even a page, created by The Knot, for brides whose weddings have been affected by Sandy. It features posts from people offering to donate dresses, create "save the date'" cards and provide their venues for the wedding, free of charge.

Many success stories come from pages set up to help just one victim of the storm. Kara Strafaci used the Facebook page "Jersey Shore Hurricane News" to get help for her grandmother, trapped in the Seaside Park area without her medication.

Upon finding a lost dog in Breezy Point, Ann Lewis set up a page for the pup. Maggie turned out to belong to a volunteer firefighter; she was lost while he was putting out fires in Breezy Point during the storm. Ann concluded the page with a photo of Maggie happily reunited with her family.

It's in those stories that much of the appeal of helping through social media lies. Many, particularly in the New York area, want the chance not just to donate but to be there in person, helping communities get back on their feet.

As Karaba says of "BK girls give back," "We're not a huge corporation. ... We're real people from Brooklyn who grew up here. It's the places and people we grew up with. There is a lot of stake for us. We want to see our home recover; it's uber personal."

In addition to large, organized charities, CNN.com/impact is telling the stories of some of the more organic social movements that have popped up after Superstorm Sandy. These stories are meant to inspire you to "do something" to make an impact in your world, your city and your neighborhood, but please always look closely at any charity before you decide to donate.

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