Monday, October 24, 2005

Winter in Sonnino

Sonnino Covered in Snow Posted by Hello

Sonnninese in Louisiana

Here's a reflection of my time in Louisiana working for the Red Cross...the Sonninese were well represented.

So, here is my attempt to capture my recent experience as a Red Cross volunteer in southern Louisiana. First, the story of how I got myself involved with the Red Cross. Like many folks watching and reading about the devastation that hurricane Katrina was causing, I wanted to do something to help. I first attempted to contact the Boston Chapter of the Red Cross about volunteer opportunities. After numerous calls and messages I gave up, unable to get a hold of anybody. I then called a number of other chapters in the area and was still unable to find any courses with openings. Finally, I received a call from the Great Bay Red Cross chapter in Portsmouth, NH. They said that they had a training scheduled for Labor Day and there were a few spots left…so I signed myself up.

The training had about 70 people and lasted approximately seven hours, after which I was I was an ‘expert’ at feeding and sheltering…hmmm you say…that level of expertise takes at least eight hours right? True to their assurances, this was a job that you learned from doing (and doing and doing and doing…). We were also warned about the extreme conditions we might encounter: lack of power, water, food, air conditioning, bugs, sleeping on the floor, extreme heat, etc. The Red Cross rates disasters on a hardship scale of 1-13. This disaster was a 12, only missing extreme cold. Needless to say we were expecting the worst if were called to deploy.

I drove home having been assured that an immediate deployed was very unlikely, and in fact, we might never be deployed. I went back to work, wowing people with my new-found expertise, and waited to see if I would be called. Low and behold, two days later I received a call asking, “So Casey, are you ready to deploy”. After a moment of shock, I responded that I was indeed ready. I needed to drive up to Portsmouth, NH the next morning to get my ID and finish some paperwork. Upon finishing my paperwork and putting away my fancy new ID badge, I asked, to no one in particular, “Hey, any idea where I’m being sent?”. You see when you’re deployed, they don’t quite tell you were your going. You receive a phone number to call with a number to punch in. Once the number is punched in the recording tells you where you’re going. My recording said that I was being sent to Baton Rouge, LA. I then dialed the other number I was given to book a flight to Baton Rouge that left within 48 hours. I was going for 14 days. I got home, called family, packed my things in two smallish bags that I could carry on my back (thank you Margie), finished some work, and got a good nights rest before my morning departure.

I had an uneventful flight to Baton Rouge that Friday morning. The people at American Airlines were extremely nice and even sat me in 1st Class…..quite a treat. Upon arriving in Baton Rouge, I spotted large numbers or other bewildered looking folks. You see, they hadn’t told us how to get from the airport to the Red Cross Main Office. I dug up the number they had given me before I left and was able to reach somebody. I was told to go to the Avis counter and rent a car. A car, I thought. No sleeping on the floor for me, I’m gonna have a back seat! I then proceeded to get lost in the vast metropolis that is Baton Rouge. Once I decided to use the map, I quickly found the old Wal-Mart that now housed the Red Cross Main Office.

The office was huge…I dare say about the size of an old Wal-Mart. Once I was processed-in I attended an orientation…by myself. I was given short history lesson on Louisiana, of which I remember little. One thing I do remember being told is that the term “coonass” is not a racial slur. It is in fact a term folks in southern Louisiana use to refer to each other. It’s something akin to “redneck’ or “good ol’ boy”. Not exactly polite, but not as bad as it might seem.

Once the orientation was finished, I walked around the giant space debating which section to sign up for, medical was out of the question, as was legal, mental health looked interesting…but not as interesting as DRIVING AN E.R.V.! I’d heard about these magical beasts. They’re mobile feeding trucks that weigh something along the lines of 5,000 pounds empty. They go to areas with food/water shortages and give people warm meals. I’d also heard that people who drove ERVs often slept in them. I’m sorry to say that my request to join the ranks of ERV drivers was denied. I needed to take a couple hour training before they would turn over the keys. Alas, I moved on to sheltering, my designated area of expertise.

The nice woman working at the sheltering table politely listened to my ERV woes. She then asked me what I did in my ‘regular life’. My response included something like “kids, violence prevention, conflict resolution…” I asked if there was a chance that she could send me to a shelter farther south than Baton Rouge. She look at me, exasperated, and said that EVERYBODY wanted to go south to see the damage, but that the real damage done was here in the shelters…the people who now didn’t have homes. Feeling a little silly, I said that I would go wherever I was most needed. She shuffled though a pile of staffing requests and said “Hmmm…I think I may have the perfect fit.” The River Center Shelter in Baton Rouge was starting a school and needed people with a background in education. Perfect. She handed me the coveted Red Cross Disaster Relief vest (ok…so they gave me one of the ones that looked more like a smock) and a sheet with directions to the staff shelter where I would stay the night.

I took my assignment sheet and directions and headed off to the staff shelter, located in the recreation room of Our Lady of Mercy Church. I arrived at the shelter, claimed a cot and a pillow, put in my ear plugs (man there are some serious snorers!) and went to sleep excited about my upcoming first day.

After a breakfast of Honey O’s and toast with peanut butter (which I had every morning), I headed over to the River Center Shelter. Upon arrival, I was amazed at the enormity of it... as well as the enormity of the intimidating guns the Army and Air Force folks carried. The shelter consisted of a sports arena with a giant exhibition hall attached. It was also a microcosm of a city with all its wonders and faults. There was an amazing diversity of people in the River Center Shelter – people who you immediately befriended, people who would have been grumpy in any situation, young people and old people, people coming down or drugs and people looking to sell them drugs. There were even reports of prostitution. In all, I was amazed by the spirit and resiliency of our residents. I should also point out that 95% of them were African-American or Creole. We did have one or two each of Latino, White/Cajun, and Asian families.

Having taken some of this in, I walked up the turned-off escalators to the volunteer office. I told them that I had been sent to help with the school. They looked at me quizzically and said, since it was Sunday, the person I needed to speak with wasn’t in… I’d have to do something else for the day. I made my way down to the floor of the shelter to help set up cots ad hand out blankets. After a half hour or so the assistant shelter manager come down and said “Hey, I think I have the perfect job for you.” He explained that the recreation and activities manager had recently left and he had failed to identify someone to take over for him. He said with my background that I would be an ideal candidate. I agreed and he told me to get a clipboard and notebook because I was now a supervisor. He said I should put in my staffing request immediately. Staffing request? Yes, after 7 hours or training and a failed attempt to drive an E.R.V, I was now a supervisor making staffing requests.

I was showed to my area, which was a third of the shelter foyer that had been blocked off by metal barriers. Within these barriers was a small pool table, an air hockey table, and a ping-pong table. I went up to the closest where all of our movable supplies were stored and submitted my staffing request. The next day I would receive three people that would be with me from 7am to 7pm everyday. Until then, I would be manning the recreation area by myself. At 12:00 the kids came, played, and wore me out!

At 7:30, exhausted after my first day, I drove back to my shelter in search of food and a shower. Food I found, lots of it. The wonderful parishioners of Our Lady of Mercy had signed up to provide meals for us each night. Brisket, Po’ Boys, Jambalaya, Gumbo, red beans and rice…all made with meat! Unfortunately, almost none of it was vegetarian. So I made my way to a Mexican restaurant around the corner to eat my fill of enchiladas.

I should mention that at my staff shelter, lights on was at 6:00am and lights out was at 10:00pm. Since there weren’t showers on-site, parishioners would show up and announce “anybody want a shower?” at which point we would all run over excitedly. Dozens of parishioners would do this every evening. Even more amazing was if you put your dirty laundry in a bag and placed it on the “Dirty Laundry” table in the morning, when you got home in the evening it would be washed and folded. Talk about dreamy. We would get home after 8:00 pm, burned out, emotionally drained, and tired beyond tired and these wonderful parishioners (and Red Cross workers) would make our lives as easy as they could. They made us feel at home and truly valued.

The next day while setting up the recreation area I was told that I was getting three new volunteers. Katie, Nancy and Candice along with Alex and Ricky (non-Red Cross volunteers) would make up the Recreation Department at the River Center Shelter. Katie is a 23 year old who is about to start a Masters degree in Switzerland; Nancy is a recently retired teacher of 34 years; Alex is an aspiring model; Ricky is an evacuee from New Orleans; and Candice a nursing student in Virginia. These are the people I spent a minimum of 12 hours a day with. These folks were amazing – we had the best team by far, but I am a little biased. I was continually amazed by their commitment, strength, resilience, and adaptability.

During the course of my stay we would have to move our recreation area three times. One of the things I learned quickly was that there was no time to be angry or frustrated; we had to just pack our stuff up, find a dolly or two, and move our staff to a new area (harder than it sounds since space was at a premium).

All-Star team in place, we got to work. Over the course of the two weeks that I was in Baton Rouge, we were a juggernaut. With between 500-700 kids at the shelter, we managed a pre-school in the morning and the recreation area in the afternoon/evening. We set up arts and crafts and educational activities. We got donations and organized field trips to the movies and lunch, a swamp tour…with real alligators, a bouncy moonwalk for outside, a family photographer to come in and take pictures since most had lost all of theirs, a trip to the ice cream store with free cones, concerts, science exhibits brought to the shelter, and a movie room with nightly showings. I told you they were All-Stars.

I can’t tell you how happy I was that I got to work with children. They’re so resilient and full of hope. They gave us hugs and were excited to see us every day.

After two weeks immersed in Louisiana culture, I got used to being called Mr. Casey. I also got used to celebrities constantly walking around. During my stay, Tommy Lasorda, Daisey Funetes, Jimmy Smitts, John Secada, Gloria Estefan, Jesse Jackson, and a whole bunch of the New Orleans Hornets (NBA team) came through. For the most part they were all pretty great. There were a few that were more interested in the cameras than helping the residents. I also picked up a Louisiana accent, which is much different than southern accent.

Over two weeks, I had a total of 10 hours off. I used this time to attend an Acadian Festival in Lafayette, about 40 minutes south-west of Baton Rouge. I heard some of the most amazing Cajun and Zydeco music (and ate way too much fried food). My friend and I danced our stress away, as I told her, all the emotion in me was going to come out one way or another, whether it was crying, ranting, or sweating it out dancing to the Zydeco…I chose the latter!

In closing here are a few things I learned about southern Louisiana:

 Apparently, gator tastes like squid
 Vegetarians are a minority in Louisiana…as are Jews!
 They LOVE LSU football.
 Everyone used the word “buku” – meaning “lots”
 Mild flavoring still means hot!
 Man they love duck hunting
 A “Po’ Boy” sandwich is basically a sub that has a roll made of French bread

All in all, my time in Baton Rouge with the Red Cross was amazing… amazing people (both Red Cross and evacuees), amazingly hard work and amazingly intense. There was such a strong sense of community and commitment. Everybody was there to help… and there were people from every town in America, and from every walk of life. The singularity of purpose was incredible. I truly hope that we can work towards that type of community in times of calm and in all parts of our lives.

So there you go… that was my experience in Baton Rouge. I wanted to detail it out because many people were asking me what it was like, and a casual conversation couldn’t do it justice. And in truth, it really took me a while to process it all.

I want to thank everyone for your thoughts and support while I was away…it truly meant a lot to me.