WASHINGTON – Peace Corps volunteers have worked to improve rugged regions around the world that have been ravaged by dictators, famine and sickness. Now some of them are working to help the Gulf Coast recover.
Shelly Brewer, 41, recently was folding towels in a tent village near Baton Rouge, La., and after that she helped put together so-called "living kits," packages with household items like sheets and silverware that Hurricane Katrina evacuees will need in new temporary homes.
"I'm going to do that until they tell me to do something else," Brewer said last week, reached on her mobile phone. Sure enough, her work was put on hold because of Hurricane Rita (search).
Brewer is among 133 former Peace Corps volunteers who had signed on as of Tuesday to help with hurricane relief efforts. They will be working under the direction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (search). Another 100 corps volunteers had expressed interest in helping, according to Peace Corps officials.
The Peace Corps (search) members going to the Gulf Coast region are all part of the corps’ Crisis Corps program, which is a group that helps out in foreign disasters such as the Indian Ocean tsunami that struck last December. Some are Peace Corps members nearing the end of their service, and some, like Brewer, have completed their service but requested to help in disasters.
Peace Corps officials say this is the first time corps volunteers are responding domestically, said Marta Metelko, a Peace Corps spokeswoman.
Brewer said she had been helping to arrange for evacuees to move into what are being called "mobile-miniums," a sprucier name for what are commonly called trailers. But those who were placed in the trailers near Baton Rouge had been evacuated because of the threat from Rita.
The trailers remained empty this week, Brewer said, as volunteers awaited the OK from FEMA to begin filling them again. The priority list for the trailers starts with the elderly and disabled.
In the meantime, Brewer said she's been helping with a phone bank formed to link family members with missing people and the deceased.
The Peace Corps, begun in 1961 during the Kennedy administration, has sent thousands of volunteers internationally to some of the most challenged regions in the world. The volunteers, who earn little more than life experience during the average two-year stint, generally consider themselves "returned" volunteers, and continue efforts to serve their communities' needs once back on U.S. soil.
Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez (search) said his agency’s response is being funded through the $62 billion-plus congressional authorization for storm-related relief. He said he didn’t believe the expenses related to the work would be high because the volunteers are only receiving a stipend for food and travel. However, he said, "There's no doubt that this is going to be a long-term proposition."
Vasquez said the corps has asked its volunteers for a 30-day commitment to help with hurricane relief. Brewer said she will be using up vacation time she has accrued from her job in Alaska as well as vacation-time donations from co-workers.
Vasquez said he personally had seen some of the destruction from the tsunami and other global disasters, and parallels can be drawn between those catastrophes and the Gulf hurricanes.
"We should never underestimate or diminish … that for some people, their lives are changed forever," Vasquez said. "They have lost their homes. They have lost their belongings. They have lost things that they have accumulated for a lifetime. That will take a long time to recover."
And "when the attention moves on to other things, we should not forget that there will be many, many Americans still struggling," Vasquez said.
That is a point not missed by the American Red Cross (search), another group aiding in the cleanup of Katrina and Rita.
Red Cross spokeswoman Beth Boone said that as of Friday more than 158,000 Red Cross workers and volunteers were in Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas to help with Katrina cleanup, and another 2,000 had been dispatched ahead of Rita.
Boone said she's not sure how many more volunteers are needed — at one time after Katrina struck, the Red Cross had put out a call for 40,000. No volunteer has been turned away yet. Boone said those seeking to volunteer should contact their local Red Cross chapters. In addition to volunteers, the organization is still seeking donations to aid the relief effort.
"We need people in all capacities," Boone said. She said the Red Cross is especially interested in people with disaster-relief experience or who speak foreign languages. As of Friday, Red Cross workers have had 365,000 mental health contacts since Katrina and 163,000 health services contacts.
One Peace Corps advocate in Congress said he's not surprised that volunteers who have returned from their international service are volunteering to work here.
"They have done impossible things in impossible places. I think it's a great use of that altruism that is built into the Peace Corps. These are people who want to give of themselves," said Rep. James Walsh (search), R-N.Y., who served with the corps in Nepal in the early 1970s.
Walsh also encouraged people to help out, whether to give money, food or time to charities or churches. "They need our help," he said.
For her first Peace Corps assignment in the late 1990s, Brewer, an Alaskan native, worked in the Ukraine in a business development program. She said she has drawn on that experience, including "having to bathe in small amounts of water," but she is divided about her time spent in the last few weeks in Louisiana.
"It's not been a complete failure," Brewer said Tuesday. She said she was able to link three missing people to their families, but weather delays have held up her efforts and those of others to put people in homes.
"It's frustrating, but it's the straw that I drew," Brewer said. On the other hand, she said earlier, "You have to stay optimistic because what's the point of getting down? It just compounds a problem."
Brewer left Anchorage on Sept. 9. After brief training in Orlando, she arrived in Baton Rouge on Sept. 14. She slept in a tent, albeit air-conditioned, until being moved to a warehouse for Rita.
She's heard that the work to put people in homes will resume Thursday, but she doesn't think she'll stay past Thursday because she needs to be back at work in Alaska on Oct. 10, and it takes nearly three travel days to return.
Asked if she thought the last three weeks were worth it, she paused.
"That question is always so hard to answer," Brewer said. "It's not over yet. ... I'm not going to answer."