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Much of Relief Work in New Orleans Done by Volunteers


Efforts continue to provide emergency food, shelter and health care to tens of thousands of New Orleans residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina and the massive flooding that followed. Much of the work is being done by volunteers who have come to Louisiana from around the nation. VOA's Adam Phillips is in Baton Rouge, about 100 kilometers north of New Orleans, and he spoke to several Red Cross volunteers at an emergency shelter for the Katrina evacuees:

The Baton Rouge Centroplex is an indoor arena where, during normal times, big conventions and concerts are held. But these are not normal times, and the arena has been transformed into a giant shelter for thousands of evacuees. It is being run by Red Cross volunteers like Thomas McCann of Oregon, who traveled here from far away, hoping to help. He says there is plenty to do:

"Everything from cleaning the restrooms, to distributing food to handing out blankets, handing out clothing, hygiene supplies," said Thomas McCann. "We have basic medical care on hand, we have emotional and spiritual support. This is the home for more than four thousand people from the New Orleans area right now; this could be their home for weeks to come. And like any good home we want it to be as stable as conforting as possible given the circumtances."

A woman named Sheila, who moved to Baton Rouge from Brooklyn, New York, a year ago, began volunteering at the shelter Wednesday.

"I just feel like I want to be out here and make a difference, not just sit at home, watch on the news and not make a difference at all," said Sheila. "Just help stock things if they need something like a blanket, or something for their baby, or some clothes. If they want soap or shampoo or they want a nice care package, I'll help any way I can."

That attitude is shared by volunteer John Saffelo of southern California, a paramedic who has worked in disaster relief after mudslides and earthquakes back home.

" … and seeing what occurred on television, a lot of us felt the need to come and participate in the relief effort and support our fellow Americans and help them recover," said John Saffelo. "There are numerous ways you can volunteer. You can do anything from answer telephones to pick up trash to deal with the sick and injured, to providing meals to carrying cargo and freight. Every person involved is a link in the chain…"

Sometimes, life in an emergency shelter can take an emotional toll on volunteers. Tami Spencer of Kabul, Missouri, has been trying to reconnect families separated by Katrina, and coordinating transportation.

Spencer: "It's hard seeing so many people affected by this. And it's hard seeing the devastation and hurt. And yes. I am able to help some people, but there are so many that I am not able to help yet. There are so many unanswered questions. It's hard for them and its also hard for us."

Phillips: "How do you cope with that?" TS: "You just have to focus on the good. You can't dwell on what you can't do."

For Sam Flory of Fremont, California, who helps oversee the hundreds of children at the shelter, and tries to keep the atmosphere in their sleeping area as restful as possible, even small successes mean a great deal.

"Sometimes, you have a little boy and you've got to figure out where his parents are, and you carry him around because he can't tell you what his name is, and you just take him around until somebody recognizes him," said Sam Flory. "So tonight, I got a little boy back to his mother. It felt good. And I know that, tonight, about three [a.m.], I am going to be walking around here, and I'm going to see 90 percent of our population is bedded down, they are asleep, they've got peaceful looks on their faces, and I will know at least I've accomplished something tonight."

Sam Flory, just one of over 2,000 volunteers from around the nation who have come to Louisiana to help the Red Cross in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.