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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
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
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
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
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
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.
In faith,Annette Marquis
For more information contact web @ uua.org.
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Last updated on Thursday, August 2, 2012.
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