The devastation of Katrina was on the television set day and night. I tried to avoid watching, because it was painful and I had no idea how I could help. But I found myself peeking at the screen in spite of myself. Soon I saw a live camera shot of a little girl being airlifted from her roof.
"That does it!" I said. "I'm going."
I had never been anywhere near a hurricane, but I knew what it felt like for a child to have to leave her home, unsure as to whether she would ever be able to return. Although I wasn't trained in disaster aid, I could at least hug some kids, listen to their stories and say, "That must have been so scary."
After some looking around, I found a local church-based group who had received an invitation by churches in Louisiana to come and help. A few days later eighteen of us left Omaha, Nebraska in three minivans and headed south for a ten-day trip. For the first few days our team worked in shelters near Baton Rouge. Later, we would work in New Orleans itself. As we drove through a deserted neighborhood on the east side of the city, we would try to comprehend the power of a flood that covered downed trees, abandoned cars and every blade of grass in sight with a sickly gray stinking sludge. The kids who lived in that neighborhood would not be going home, for sure.
Although we had been invited to come as a disaster child-care team, at first we were not assigned to work with children but performed a variety of tasks, such as scrubbing toilets and trying to bring some organization to a warehouse stuffed with far more bottled water, diapers, clothes and canned food than it had ever been intended to hold. Then one day we were asked to help run a children's carnival at the Lamar-Dixon shelter in Gonzales.
Our first duty was to decorate the premises with helium balloons. Kids started coming out of the shelter as soon as we arrived, swarming around us and taking the balloons as fast as we could blow them up. The older ones helped us tie them to the fences. One little boy kept letting them go, laughing like crazy as he watched them go up, up into the air.
Then the carnival began. Some team members painted faces, some twisted balloons into animal shapes. Some supervised the moon jump, others the ring tosses and still others the playdough station. Some spun cotton candy, some popped corn and some handed out ice cream. I helped with the crafts. We were supplied with foam visor caps, which the children could decorate with sprinkle glue. We were also given string, scissors and beads so they could make bracelets. The alphabet beads were gone long before the brightly colored ones. Perhaps there is something about living and sleeping in a room with eighteen hundred people that makes one want to reaffirm one's identity.
The kids didn't seem to need much help with their visors. For the most part, I stood behind the table and simply watched them. But when they finished, they would usually look up at me, show me their completed cap and say with a smile of pride, "See what I made." Sometimes, they told me their stories. Sometimes, I had a chance to say what I came to Louisiana to say. Twelve-year old Travis, for example, told me he swam out with his family, carrying his two-year old brother on his back. "That must have been so scary," I said. "You were so brave."
Teenagers and adults came by the craft table too. "Where can I get one of these?" I asked Roxanne, pointing to her hat, which consisted of a double layer of twisted balloons. I was surprised when she immediately handed me the hat, and I wore it proudly until it popped.
The first time Jennifer came to the crafts table she took great care in creating a sprinkle-glued visor for Isabelle, her baby daughter. After a while she thought of a tiny additional decoration that would make it even prettier. Still later, she came back to make bracelets for Isabelle and herself. Jennifer's house was under water and she had no idea where she would go. "The man my baby calls Daddy is in the Navy and he's helping out in Mississippi," she told me.
I would never wear a t-shirt with 'go play outside' printed on it as Maxine did; yet I felt an instant rapport with her. She was a thin woman and she was carrying a toddler. A rather hefty teenager with long braided hair accompanied them in a self-propelled wheel chair; her son I presumed. After we visited a bit, I asked the young man if I could give him a hug. "I don't take hugs," he informed me. He must have seen my face fall, for he quickly added, "But I do give them." Same difference in my book. We both got the hug.
A woman with large hoop earrings came by. She had no idea whether her home was still inhabitable, but on her visor she wrote in sprinkle glue, "God blessed us." When I said, "Your spirit inspires me," she replied, "We got out safe, didn't we?"
I was picking up some beads that had fallen when a little boy I hadn't seen before crawled under the table to help me. His head popped up next to mine and he said, "Is it true that God goes with you no matter where you go?"
"That's right!" I exclaimed. "What a smart little boy you are, to know that already."
God goes with us wherever we go. I wish I'd known that when I was five. It's enough to make scary things a little less scary.
Last updated: 12/15/05