October 6: The Story that Broke my Heart
As I returned to my home in Michigan, I realized that I saved the hardest stories until I had time to process them, to cry about them, to feel some distance from them. The hardest stories were those that touched my heart in some way that I have not let it be touched in recent memory. They dug deep like a rabbit burrowing into the earth to build a strong, safe home to protect her from the harsh Michigan winter. They clung to me, invading my soul and demanding to be let in. These are the stories of trust, of pain, of love, of helplessness, of hope.
It was Friday night at the Hattiesburg shelter. I had been working there for three nights now and was pretty familiar with the people there and with what to expect. My crisis intervention training has taught me to never be surprised, to expect the unexpected, to be ready for anything. I thought I was. And then at about 7 p.m. I overheard a woman at the front reception desk tell the Red Cross worker that she needed help. She had driven from St. Bernard Parish with several others because they had heard that they could get help from the Red Cross in Hattiesburg. They had lost everything in the storm, were staying with family and friends, and had been unable to get any help in the area they were in. They needed food and clothing for their children. Was there any help available here? The response she received was not what she wanted to hear. She was told she had to register with the Red Cross the next morning and then she'd be given a time to come back for assistance. The woman started crying and said, "Can't anybody help us?"
When it was clear she was not going to get any help there, I asked her to step outside so I could talk with her. Two other women followed her. "Are they with you?" I asked. "Yes, and so are these other people" she said, pointing to a group of others standing outside. "We caravanned here because we have to find some help." I asked them all to pull up chairs so we could talk. Nine people gathered around. Five women and four men of varying ages. "Are you all related?" I asked. "No," was the response. We just found ourselves in the same situation. We all have children and we all are desperate for help," an older man replied.
As they told their stories, I learned that these nine people were all heads of households. They all had children but no place to call home. The only help they had received so far was from a church that brought a few meals into the neighborhood where they were staying. Their welcomes were wearing out with the families that took them in. They came to Hattiesburg out of pure desperation because they heard this was where the Red Cross had set up their offices. They figured if they couldn't get help here, they couldn't get help anywhere. Looking into their eyes was like looking into a deep well where you could only imagine how far the bottom was.
I asked if they had eaten today. "No," was the universal reply. The timing was good because the late dinner was about to be served at the shelter and they were welcome to eat there. I also asked if they would each write down their names, their children's names, their ages, and where they were staying. Each person took the notebook and in turn, wrote down their family information. When they handed the notebook back to me, I took a sharp intake of air as I reviewed the list: Robert, age 10, Robin, 11, Regina, 12, Devonta, 7, BruShawn, 10 months, Johnita, 4 months, two sets of twins: Jessica and Joshua, age 1 and Brittney and Daniela, 6 months, and the list went on. 34 children, 4 adults, plus the 9 adults who were sitting in front of me. 47 people ranging in age from 4 months to an aging grandmother who felt so much desperation that she rode with them 125 miles to try to find help for her family. I knew we had to do something.
While they were devouring their dinners, I called Rev. Jacqueline Luck, the minister I was working with, and asked for her thoughts. She said she would call the member of the Ellisville church, Peggy Owens-Mansfield, who was the Red Cross Director in Laurel (see an article about Peggy on the UU World website: "Mississippi Red Cross leader inspired by Universalist Clara Barton"), 33 miles up the road, and she what she suggested. Within minutes Jacqueline called back. "If they get to the fairgrounds in Laurel at 7 am tomorrow morning, they can apply for and get a check from the Red Cross. They will need identification and social security numbers of their family members. Do they have that?" Yes, they had brought whatever they could find. Because they would not be able to cash the checks until Monday, Jacqueline said she would drive in to meet them and to give them cash to hold them over. When Jacqueline arrived, we gave each family $40 out of a private $1000 donation Jacqueline had received. Not a lot of money but enough to buy food to get them through the weekend.
We discussed staying the night in the shelter and then leaving early in the morning. But after much discussion, they decided to head up to Laurel and sleep in their cars so they would be in first in line. One woman was especially concerned about leaving her babies overnight with the family they were staying with. She was afraid they would kick them out. But after reaching them by phone, she agreed to the plan to spend the night in Laurel.
Before they left, I invited them all back to the clothing distribution room in the shelter to pick up some things they needed. Each person searched for clothing and supplies to help their families who had nothing. They picked up jeans, diapers, a house coat, t-shirts, a pair of shoes. Enough to get by till something else comes along.
After expressing their gratitude for our help, they were on their way. As the cars pulled out of the shelter's parking lot, Jacqueline and I both questioned whether we had helped enough, whether what we did made a difference, and, we're both sad to say, whether we had been scammed. What I know is that the eyes of these people came back to life as their stomachs were filled. I know that their bodies relaxed, they became more talkative, and they became more trusting as a bit of hope was restored. I can't know more than that. Helping strangers is always a risk but in this case, I can't help but believe the risk was well worth it. What we knew was that 47 people had food in their stomachs that weekend. 47 people had a few clothes on their backs. 47 people had hope that the generosity of others would pull them through this tragedy.
As the Gulf Coast Relief Fund has topped $2 million, I am awed by the generosity of UUs around the country. I am also struck with how difficult it is to know how to be helpful, how to spend money wisely, how to make a difference. I am encouraged by the joint effort of the UUA and the UUSC and know that their partnership will make a difference in a region that so desperately needs our message of valuing the inherent worth and dignity of every person.