The "Jersey Shore" and disaster relief go together like spray tans and muck boots. Which is to say, not at all. But somehow, the folks behind the Tropical Storm Irene relief website vtresponse.com are making it happen. Inexplicably, the team connecting Vermont storm victims with eager volunteers are also the people in charge of a fledgling business called Reality Venture Capital. Their company name is a bit deceiving — a deep-pocketed venture capital firm they are not. At present, they run reality television fantasy leagues. Yep, that's right. Fantasy leagues are no longer the dominion of armchair quarterbacks. Reality tv fans can get in on the mix, too.
Sarah Waterman (who we recently wrote about here), 27, and Matt Sisto, also 27, are the masterminds responsible for creating the reality tv fantasy league concept. And don't let any reality tv fantasy league biters tell you differently. The business began as a hobby, says Sisto, who with a friend started assigning points to various reality show themes — vomiting, crying, hooking up, the word "situation," etc. Within three years, the idea grew into an online enterprise for the general reality tv-addicted public.
At present, they run a fantasy league for the "Jersey Shore," and they are just about to launch two other leagues — one for the "Real Housewives" series and one the upcoming Kim Kardashian wedding. So far, they have about 30 players, who get points when the characters they pick to be on their team do or say certain reliably predictable reality show things like getting drunk or telling someone that they're "not trying to make any friends."
The leagues, which are free to join, make money via web ads. Recently, they've been working on their business plan and getting all their legal ducks in a row (there has been some unwanted encroachment from sports blog Grantland, the pair say). But then Irene rolled in and soaked and flattened much of southern Vermont. That's when Waterman, a veteran Hurricane Katrina volunteer with a masters desgree in public administration, kicked into action. The pair, along with "social media ninja" Katie Kent, quickly set up vtresponse.com to serve as a one-stop shop for people looking for Irene resources.
While disaster relief and systems planning is Waterman's bailiwick, Sisto is a new convert to the field. So far, it's been a proverbial baptism by fire for the former aspiring novelist (who did manage to get referenced on The Atlantic Wire for a blog post he wrote about Snooki). After graduating from UVM in 2007, Sisto stuck around the area, doing web development for Home Ecology, a green general store in Shelburne, for two years. He then took a year off to write the Great American Novel. When he returned to the working world, he figured he and Waterman could make a go of their reality tv fantasy league concept.
He didn't bank on becoming one of the major Irene resources, but that's what he and Waterman and Kent have become. They've been pulling endlessly long days trying to harness the power of willing and able volunteers around the state. Waterman says this is essential to provide people resources for two main reasons — one, because people need to feel like they can help their neighbors; and two, perhaps more importantly, a coordinated volunteer response means that people will be less likely to go where they are not needed, wanted or where it's dangerous.
As of today, the team has put Reality Venture Capital on hold while they work to compile the never-ending calls for assistance on vtresponse.com. That way they can focus on listening to what people need. Sometimes, Waterman says, all victims need is a kind ear and someone who will hear them out and help them feel less isolated as they struggle figure out the next step.
In addition to fielding calls and emails from people who are stranded due to road wash-outs or power outages, they've also heard from people desperate to help. One woman, an endurance equestrian, got in touch to offer her services to ride into inaccessible areas with supplies. Another person wrote in to say he had a lumberjack crew and ATVs at the ready to help clear downed trees and debris. Still another Vermonter emailed to say her husband had a Jeep with a winch as well as rigging equipment and was willing to help in the clean-up. To deal with the deluge, they recently added a forum to their website where people can connect directly with one another.
The vtresponse.com site is a far cry from the world of J-Woww, Khloé and Countess LuAnn de Lesseps. But relief work is what's needed now, the crew reasons. Plus, there will be no shortage of reality tv material to mine when Irene finally blows over.
Photo via snookienicole.com.