Saturday, September 10, 2005

My experience volunteering (at the Astrodome and the GRB)

Last Friday, September 2, I finally couldn't stand watching the televised tragedy any longer, and having caught up with all my clients and prospecting, decided to go down to the Astrodome and do something.

I packed the car with some clothes that belonged to us and to my mother-in-law -- she has end-stage Alzheimer's and we've already begun the rather painful process of disposing of some of her personal effects -- as well as a variety of toilet articles, and dropped them off at Rice Temple Baptist Church (the Dome wasn't accepting donations that morning).

Before my four-hour shift was to begin, I had time for an early lunch, so I went to my neighborhood Vietnamese place and sat behind two green-scrub wearing, twenty-something guys who were discussing their 401-Ks. The television had Fox News on, and the scenes from a helicopter flying over Charity Hospital in downtown New Orleans were being shown. The two young men took note of the horror inside the hospital being described by the reporter on TV, but not in a manner that indicated much alarm.

The promo for the upcoming local noon newscast mentioned the shortage of medical personnel and the need for volunteers skilled in that expertise at the Astrodome.

The two men sitting in front of me, wearing green surgical scrubs, having an early lunch like me, about a mile from both the Texas Medical Center and the Astrodome, ordered extra egg rolls.

I finished my pho and headed over to the Dome. I parked, leaving my wallet and cellphone in the car, followed the signs guiding me to the volunteers registration area, and was cautioned again about my wallet, cellphone and jewelry (none of these was allowed to be carried into the Dome by volunteers, for reasons of obvious personal safety). After signing in I endured a short orientation session which consisted of being asked a few questions about my physical health -- could I use a handtruck, lift a heavy box, do some twisting and turning; and my mental health -- did the sight of very ill people bother me, would it upset me to be dealing with upset or grief-stricken folks, etc. -- and finally got an assignment: I'd be unloading some of the donation boxes of clothes, diapers, food, and more.

That's what I did for about three of the four hours; in between shifts with the dolly and the boxes, I and others cleaned the kitchen after lunch had been served. I washed some of the cooking utensils, swept and mopped the floor.

The entire effort itself was haphazard and sometimes frustrating. The volunteers I served with were hard-working, the volunteer coordinators were haggard and occasionally short-tempered but also devoted to the task, and the people we were helping were grateful and shell-shocked and occasionally smelled bad and were overcome with emotion. They frequently quarreled with, and sometimes screamed at, their children, others' children, and each other. They asked questions I didn't know the answer to -- but in subsequent days were answered for everyone: how they could find out about a missing loved one, where to make a long-distance phone call.

I left with a sense of some accomplishment but also a nearly overwhelming sense of despair -- for the state of the New Orleans evacuees, as well as that of our nation.

The next day, Saturday the 3rd of September, the news was that the Dome had too many volunteers, so I went to the George R. Brown Convention Center downtown, which had been opened to accomodate the overflow of evacuees. You may recall that the Astrodome was believed capable of housing 25,00o people, but the Harris County fire marshall had ceased the intake of refugees at about 11,500 on Friday, and there were rumors reported in the media that some buses from Louisiana had been turned away.

The first group who were being housed there, maybe a thousand people, were not the evacuees you are used to seeing on television. They were almost all Caucasian, and were part of the wave of folks who evacuated New Orleans before Katrina made landfall and had been staying in Houston-area hotels and motels, but who had run out of money or had been asked to vacate because of pre-booked registrations. Some were expressing concern about the influx of "those people" coming from the Astrodome.

The GRB was cleaner, the people had more room, the volunteers were everywhere and many of them, like my friend Lyn did the following day, were doing one-on-one assistance. That wasn't the job for me; I would much rather do the physical labor than the psychological.

I'm glad I helped; my conscience feels much the better for having done so, but I hope I never have to do anything like that again. Or have to be on the receiving end of the assistance, either.


Sunday September 4th, my 79-year old mother and her friend from Lamar University (Mom's retired from there now over a decade) drove over from Beaumont to join us for brunch and baseball. Since we had the outing planned for well before Katrina, we stuck with our plan to have jazz brunch at Brennan's, followed by the 1:05 Astros-Cardinals game at Minute Maid Park.

The dichotomy of what I witnessed in the Dome and the GRB, juxtaposed against the experience of the beautiful restaurant with the French Quarter styled courtyard, the jazz music, the crabmeat omelet on the plate in front of me -- the extremes of class and caste I experienced were simply so significant that words don't do it justice.

When I thought about the people who hadn't been able to eat a decent meal in several days as I slurped up my delicious chicken and andouille gumbo, I felt the remorse of the fortunate. "There but for the grace of God" and so on. As I licked my spoon clean of the pecan pie a la mode, I considered -- all too briefly -- the plight of those just a few miles away who had lost their homes, their jobs, their city, even members of their family.

And as we took our seats in a brand new stadium to watch wealthy men play a child's game, I thought for a moment about the homeless children playing on the field which formerly hosted the millionaire athletes, and was now host to poor men and women with nearly nothing left.

'Dichotomy' doesn't begin to adequately describe it.

And my Merriam-Webster Thesaurus lists no other entries for the word.

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