Experience reinforces volunteer's appreciation, inspires future action.


By: Lisa DeStefano
Date: Sunday, Mar 25, 2007
Publication: Portsmouth Herald

Last year my brother and his wife went to Louisiana to participate in a Hurricane Katrina volunteer relief effort. The experience impacted him enormously, so he decided to go again this year during February school vacation week and he invited me to go along. I welcomed the opportunity but was not prepared for the level of destruction we witnessed.

Despite a highly organized program, which included briefings on what we would see, I was overwhelmed with the reality of how much work is still needed to be completed.

Our group of 50 volunteers included folks from New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Texas and South Carolina. Our home for the week was in Slidell, Louisiana, located about 45 minutes from New Orleans, a community hit hard due to a lack of flood insurance because they are nowhere near the ocean.

We were housed in a converted church community center transformed into temporary housing with men's and women's bunks, showers, dining and laundry facilities. This building houses a new group of volunteers each and every week-that's how great the need is within the community.

We were divided into teams and charged with working on four houses and a church. Our tasks were varied, from sheet rocking to clearing debris. I was fortunate to be able to put my professional skills to work by being asked to assist with laying out the entrance roadway for the newly constructed church, and then again to consult on a home with structural issues.

The experience was very rewarding and while I do participate in our community in ways that I feel are giving back, volunteering in this relief effort was truly powerful. Every where we went, we wore our relief tee shirts and people would stop to thank us for being there and helping their community.

Many of these people have deep roots in their community. Many, still grieving the massive losses they've suffered, have not been able to participate in helping others. There are still 80,000 FEMA trailers that represent 80,000 households still uprooted and displaced. It's very common to look into the forests and see trees littered with couches, refrigerators and other belongings ripped from people's homes during the storm.

What impacted me the most was seeing first hand the scale of devastation and coming to the realization that this will easily be a ten-year process of rebuilding, assuming of course there are no more devastating storms in the area. The experience made me consider the whole idea of community. What's required to create one and how does a successful community work? Seeing what the people of Slidell, and many other communities in that area, are dealing with on a day to day basis has made me, more than ever, really appreciate just how lucky we are here in our own communities.

Despite the difficult circumstances, I will carry with me many memorable moments. Meeting the homeowners we were assisting was very moving and it was a good feeling knowing we were helping to bring safety and peace back into their lives. Their gratitude was our reward and enough of a reason for me to return some time in the near future.

Whether you are a student or a senior citizen your help is needed and no matter what your skill set, your time and energy will be welcomed and put to good use. Because as Dale Kimball, Operations Coordinator for North Shore Disaster Relief, says, "If the volunteers stop coming, rebuilding is over."

Note: The NSDR is the coordination point for 81 organizations. Through this effort 16,630 volunteers have been coordinated from 44 states and 8 foreign countries serving 5,870 clients.

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