FOX Fan Firsthand: A Volunteer’s Story

October 4, 2005

"I Felt the Call of God to Go"

I want to share with you what is really happening down in the Gulf Coast. After watching enough suffering through TV coverage, I felt the call of God to go down South and do my part to help in whatever way I could, and with hopes of adopting a family and bringing them back so they could get their lives in order and get their kids into school. I had a very long talk with my daughter, who fully supported the idea and was excited to be able to be a "big sister" to any children that would come back.

I was able to visit a few shelters. In order to adopt a family, you don't just arbitrarily go up to a family and ask them if they want to come home with you. Through the American Red Cross, they have family assessments and assistance which orchestrates the "adoption" of families and displaced people. For anyone interested, you can call the Red Cross toll-free at 1-800 HELP-NOW (435-7669). You can also contact the Key Chapter for the American Red Cross in Meridian, MS. The address is:

American Red Cross (Key Chapter)
1820 23rd Avenue
Meridian, MS 39301

In the beginning, those in shelters are grateful for a place to lay their heads. The first couple of days are okay, but as the weeks pass the feeling of relief turns into a claustrophobic feeling because there is nowhere to go. They are confined to a shelter and the surrounding neighborhoods, but there is nothing to do. The children are in school. Everybody is getting three meals a day and whatever clothes are being donated are shared. There are cots lined up in a gymnasium with only limited room to walk in between. This is not a way to live, but for now this is all these people have. They rely on people to help them because their world was washed away or so badly destroyed that nothing is left.

As for the American Red Cross, I have a newfound respect for what they do and the people who are a part of it. For all of you who received that famous e-mail about the national director receiving over $400k and that only 34 cents of every dollar goes directly to the cause: Forget about it, delete it! I have met some of the most selfless, caring, compassionate, hands-on movers and shakers while working with the people in the Meridian Key Chapter of the ARC. There is a lifelong bond with the people that I met, and this experience was truly life altering. I was blessed to be able to lock arms with some of the best people here on earth. I watched as these people worked night and day to provide food, clothing, shelter, emergency money, medical support, family support, hugs, tissues for the tears — whatever it took, these people did what they could and they did it 24/7.

They even took care of me by providing me with medical support for my arm and neck; I ran out of meds and allergy meds because of the air quality. My eyes have never been so swollen. They didn't want me sleeping in my car and offered me a place to sleep. I stayed with a woman who let me stay in her home even though she wasn't going to be there the first night. We worked together during the day and then a group of us went out for a drink at a local pub and we got to know each other. I cannot tell you how many people offered me a place to sleep when they found out that I came all that way knowing there would be no hotels available. This is the generosity of the people of the American Red Cross in Meridian, Mississippi.

The people I met in this particular chapter of the ARC not only are making sure that the money goes to the people, they are making sure that it goes to ALL of the people no matter where they are. The Meridian chapter was taking care of their locals, the surrounding communities, and on their own time also filled moving trucks to capacity in a caravan down to the Gulf Coast, which is not even their "territory."

As for the Gulf Coast, it is gone! The Gulf Coast was washed away, blown away, and only rubble is left in 99% of what I saw. There are no signs of wildlife. There were no birds, no squirrels, no deer, no wild pigs, nothing! I met a Florida State Trooper while working in Pearlington, Mississippi who said that the waters off the Gulf Coast are now shark infested because of the bodies of humans and animals alike that were washed away. During a reconnaissance mission they had to drop someone in to verify if some of the bodies they saw were humans or wild pigs — when the hair falls off a wild pig, they resemble humans.

The forest is badly destroyed. We (the people I was with), wore gloves at all times, cargo pants with lots of pockets to carry hand sanitizer and other items we needed to be able to work in that environment, and high rubber boots. We didn't shower for the two days we were there because there was no place to take a shower unless we stayed at a special site set up for ARC workers. We chose to stay with the people who needed us. We slept in a back room of a video store and used bottled water to brush our teeth. We were supplied with special body wash packets and lots of bug spray. There are mosquitoes and biting flies due to the conditions there.

In Pearlington, people weren't discovered until a week or more after the hurricane, and it was by accident. As a woman described: "I heard what sounded like a helicopter landing on the roof behind me and when I came out of the window a man was hanging on a rope down from a helicopter because he saw white underwear hanging. He asked if there were other people and I said yes, there are about 180 people here." His reply was, "No one knows that you are here. I need to radio this back to get you guys help."

We were able to help this devastated community by providing food and drinks, clothes, toiletry bags, hand sanitizer, and transistor radios from FEMA which provide information bulletins. We also answered their questions about how to start the recovery process, contacted family and friends to let them know these people were alive and doing as best as could be expected under the circumstances, and helped retrieve personal items from the debris. These people were so grateful for the smallest of things like a shoulder to cry on and a hug. For them to hear the words, "you are safe now and everything will be alright" meant the world to them.

We came across a woman and her husband, and as I approached with the transistor radio and asked if they needed anything the woman collapsed in my arms sobbing because her house was destroyed and she had nothing left. Her home had been blown, intact, into the middle of the street. When the hurricane was over, her and her husband found it as if it had been purposely built there. The Army Corp of Engineers evacuated them, and when they came back they found that their house had been bulldozed to clear the streets. Nothing was left. She began to tell me that her mother had passed away two years earlier and the last gifts that her mother gave her were two afghans she had knitted. She could see them wrapped in the debris but was tugging on them and could not get them out. She moved me to the point that I took a crowbar from our truck and, along with another woman, we were able to free these two afghans intact and return them to her along with three Christmas stockings we found. Her husband then began to cry and hugged me and said, "You do not know what that meant to my wife." I replied, "Yes I do, that's why we did it."

We helped a family gut their house. We removed the carpets, furniture, clothes and everything that we could to help them clean up and get a leg up on the rebuilding process. These are the kinds of things we were able to do for people. Please keep in mind that there was 25 to 30 feet of ocean water that flooded this area. Some of these homes were built on stilts 12 and 15 feet in the air — the water was up to the second floors of these houses.

I could go on for months sharing more stories of hardship, but let me tell you about the good things. The National Guard is setting up shelters, medical teams are in there, food banks and all the resources people need are being shipped and set up. The Salvation Army had food trucks in there. The Southern Baptist Churches had caravans of mobile food pantries and kitchens. People have rushed to the aid of all that were affected by this hurricane.

A couple we met drove from Detroit, Michigan with a food truck and drove into Pearlington and set up to feed people for free. One woman felt so moved that she personally bought the owner a 32-foot trailer home and had it delivered with everything this woman would need to get back into life. This woman also left money to be distributed to those in dire need so they would have cash to get things. "People" are doing GOOD things for other "people." I am not saying that the government isn't doing anything, but the people took matters into their own hands and came to the rescue and aid of these hurricane victims. Now that is what I am talking about!

What do these people need? Everything, but mostly they need volunteers to physically go down there and help them clean up. Everyone is in the same situation, so families cannot help families and friends cannot help friends because everyone is trying to survive. These people really need help. They also need cleaning supplies like brooms, rakes, hoes, mops, work gloves, rubber gloves, cleaning solutions (disinfectants and germicidal), towels, contractor garbage bags, etc. Tents, tarps, generators mosquito spray and sunscreen are all badly needed. A little boy approached and asked if we had any clothes that would fit him because he was wearing the clothes on his back for five days and he said he smelled. People I worked with dug through bags and found clothes for this little boy and gave him a toothbrush because he didn't have one, and he was also given a transistor radio and some toys. The smile on his face was priceless. These are the kind of things that we did down there. I will be going back because it is hard not to go back. When you are there and truly see the need, it is hard to walk away from people who desperately need our help. St. Joseph's Catholic Church was destroyed. This church needs our support.

The destruction is the negative, and the people are truly the positive. Keep them in your prayers, and if you have the means and are able and feel compelled to give, please do so.

God Bless,

Elisabeth M. Sobczak

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