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Blog #6 - Where do we sleep?

September 18, 2005

It is wonderful how the people of Maine have poured out their hearts and pocketbooks to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and this same sense of charity and unity is echoed all across our country. There are Red Cross volunteers from every state in the union here, each doing their bit to help out. It is overwhelming how the country has come together in this time of need for our fellow citizens.

Last night I had a chance to hear first-hand how one group of people in Baton Rouge worked together to make a difference. Just hearing about it was one of the wonderful moments that I will bring away from my assignment here.

Staff Shelters

David Littlefield from Sebago arrived at the Baton Rouge airport around 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, September 18. I met him there and gave him a ride into town. After, of course, he stopped by the airline counter to file a missing baggage claim.

“Where am I staying tonight?” he asked.

”It’s too late to get you processed in at Red Cross headquarters, so I’ll take you to the staff shelter I’m staying at for the night. Tomorrow morning you can sign-in at headquarters and get your assignment,” I answered. “Your bag might even be here by then!”

Hotel and motel rooms here are at a premium with the influx of Hurricane Katrina survivors, and most of the Red Cross staff in Baton Rouge stays at a shelter. Some are assigned to client shelters and share their food and accommodations with evacuees. Other staff stay at one of 14 staff shelters set up in area churches, schools and public buildings for Red Cross workers to stay, shower, and rest after their 12+ hour shifts.

I was very fortunate to be assigned to the staff shelter at the Woodlawn Baptist Church in south Baton Rouge. Red Cross volunteers Ted Huisman from Iowa and husband and wife team William and Karen Tasch from Ann Arbor, Michigan are volunteers with the Red Cross and have been assigned as the shelter hosts. They welcomed me at the door when I first arrived on Friday night, had me sign in, and showed me around the shelter.

The shelter is set up in the large recreation building behind the church, and is considered the “Cadillac” of staff shelters in the area. Eighty cots are set up in the gym for sleeping, there is a shower, three toilets and three sinks in each of the two bathrooms, and a large dining room where the staff keeps a coffee pot going and has an array of fresh fruit and snacks. In the morning there are bagels and cold cereal for breakfast, and sometimes there is something for supper as well. The building is air conditioned; we have power, a television set, and even a wireless connection for computers. The church families are starting a program to take in our dirty laundry once a week. Can a person ask for more? I consider myself very lucky, especially since I have seen some of the other facilities where Red Cross volunteers are sheltered and they are not quite what you would call a “Cadillac”.

Reverend Middleton visits

Ted Huisman announced that there was salad and lasagna in the dining room if anyone wanted supper. David Littlefield and I filled our plates and sat down to eat with a group of nurses and a doctor who provide medical care at one of the client shelters in town. Through the door came a man in a suit coat and tie, and welcomed everyone. I stood up and shook his hand, introduced myself, and asked “…and what is your name?”

”I’m Tommy Middleton,” he replied. “I’m the Senior Pastor of Woodlawn Baptist Church, and I want to thank all of you Red Cross volunteers for everything that you are doing to help these folks.”

”Can you tell us about your church?” I asked. “I understand that you just opened this staff shelter for the Red Cross three days ago.”

”I’ve been pastor here since November 1987,” he said. “Woodlawn Baptist is 154 years old, and is the oldest in the East Baton Rouge Parish. We currently have about 1,200 members, and have a very active community outreach program.”

As Reverend Middleton went on to tell about how his congregation had come together to respond to Hurricane Katrina, people started to gather until we had a group of about 20 people pulling up chairs and listening. The church had opened its doors as a Red Cross staff shelter on September 15, but before that it had been set up as a shelter for storm evacuees. They were ready to take people starting on August 28, the day before the hurricane hit Louisiana. Over the course of the next few weeks they housed 300 evacuees here, and then found apartments and houses for them to live in, helped them find new jobs, even bought bus tickets for several who wanted to relocate elsewhere. People heard about us by word of mouth and referral from other churches, and would just show up on our doorstep. Often they had lost everything but the clothes on their backs.

The church also had an outreach effort to help those affected by the hurricane. A work team worked to rebuild and repair storm damage. They stayed at another church building in the complex. The Church’s Emergency Response Coordinator, David Deal, has helped pull everything together, but the entire congregation has taken part in one way or another.

”Right after the hurricane our church members loaded up trucks with 27 generators, gasoline, water and food and drove to the Slidell area on the Mississippi border. We gave it all away to people and businesses,” he said. “This whole disaster has been a powerful galvanizing force as our people have practiced Christian outreach first hand.”

The group hung on every word Reverend Middleton uttered as he told us of the wonderful things that had happened here right after the hurricane. He told how a family found their mother at a shelter in Huntsville, Texas while staying here, and how thankful the group of evacuees was when their bus reached Washington state and their new homes.

What do you say when someone has lost everything?

One of the nurses in the group asked Reverend Middleton how he responds to people who have lost everything. She sees clients every day who are in need.

”I have found that it is very important to let people pour out their sorrows and losses, and it is equally important that you listen,” he said. “I believe that only if you listen can you effectively try to give them comfort or advice.”

”I try to have them focus on what they have not lost - the lives of their families and their health. Houses can be rebuilt. Possessions can be replaced. What these people have left is what really matters. I try to get them to concentrate on what is really important in life,” he said. “I think it helps.”

”I firmly believe that each of us is here for a purpose, and each day of our lives is a gift that we should use wisely,” he added. “We have chances every day to touch the lives of our neighbors, friends, family, and strangers. You don’t have to be a trained counselor to help others. I am proud of what each of you is doing during this terrible tragedy. You are making a difference, and for many of you this will be a shining point in your lives. You are truly heroes.”

”No, we want to thank you for all that you have done,” said one of the group. There was spontaneous applause for our host, and many damp eyes in the group who were moved by his message. His words had helped remind us why we were here, away from our homes and our families, in order to help others.

Lights out

As Karen Tasch went through the shelter announcing “Lights Out!” a little after 10:00 p.m., we thanked Reverend Middleton for his visit and his words of encouragement and filed off to the gym to find our cots for the night.

The lights go back on a 6:00 a.m., but many of us didn’t get to sleep right away with his words going through our minds.

Copyright © 2005, Allen Crabtree