Same job, different uniform.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

More props for Texas

Now fully recovered from my virus, I'd like to share my experiences of the short-lived opportunity I was given to help the Katrina evacuees now sharing with me the great city of Austin, TX.

When the evacuees first arrived, there were electronic signs all around town asking people for donations. Within less than a week all those signs read, "Donation centers closed. Thank you, Austin for your genorosity." That made me proud.

Driving into downtown on the night of Sunday, September 11, I did my best not to stare at all the people loitering around the surrounding streets of the convention center, because I'm sure they all felt like they were an exhibition. The Convention Center is across the street from some rather upscale restaurants in Austin. It was interesting to see the contrast between the restaurant-goers (who managed to keep their heads down the entire walk to the restaurant) and those who seemed to be aimlessly wandering, trying to pass the time in a strange city.

I volunteered at the child care center, which had been set up a few days prior to when I arrived, and is being run a group called "Child Inc." They had taken over the child care from the Red Cross the previous Wednesday. Apparently the Red Cross didn't really know how to deal with kids who were acting out, so Child Inc. volunteered their time to take on this massive project of child care. In the building where I worked, it was separated into three class rooms, and I was in the Infant/Toddler room, and if you know me at all, you know that's where I'd fit in best. In the building next door was where they kept the "Nanny 911" kids. I heard stories from workers in there about kids picking up desks and throwing them, hitting teachers, etc. Thankfully, many of the volunteers came from child care centers from across the city, and unfortunately children acting out like that can be very common. I also heard a story about a little boy with sores on his feet that looked like blisters, and when a teacher asked him why he had them, he said "I was on my brother's shoulders, and something in the water kept biting me."

I spent my evening with a little boy named Jarmon. When I came into the room he was standing at the window, watching everyone go by. He was about 2 1/2, and had a little brother in there with him who was 15 months old. The lady who was in charge of the room that night told us all that Jarmon kept crying every time someone tried to play with him, so we were basically supposed to just let him stand at the window. It was too sad to watch him staring outside, and I knew he must have been on the look out for someone he knew. I got him to play with me for a few minutes, then he started to cry and say "window" which sounded more like "winnow." I picked him up then, and he immediately put his head on my shoulder. As the night went on, he was getting sleepier and sleepier, but was very alert, and didn't want to let his guard down. He kept asking for his grandma, and all I could think to say was that it was going to be alright. I pretty much held him for two hours straight, and he was very close to falling asleep more than once, but just wouldn't let himself. His dad arrived around 9:30, and Jarmon was very excited to see him, but so tired he was really out of it. The dad told us he had tried to go the mall to buy the kids some new clothes, but by the time he made it there on the bus it was already closed. And then it took him over an hour to get back. I totally empathized, as I went through many similar experiences with the wonderful bus system in Austin. Places that should take you only 15 minutes to get to, can take nearly two hours. How frustrating it must be to try and figure all of these things out while you're sharing your living quarters with 1,000 other people, and are only allowed to shower and eat at certain times.

I went back again the next night, but no kids showed up, which we all considered a good thing, because it probably meant they were with their parents. They called all the volunteers together to ask for two people to stay that entire night with a one-year-old boy whose mom had been taken to the hospital for an indefinite amount of time, whose grandma was in Houston, and whose brother and uncle were seriously ill in hospitals in San Antonio. The next day I was in bed all day after catching the stomach virus that was spreading throughout the convention center. It was miserable, but I had to remind myself that at least I was in my own bed, in a comfortable home where I had restroom facilities available to me all the time. Only 500 people are left at the convention center, because the Red Cross is paying for the first month's rent for people who went out and found jobs and apartments. Unfortunately those who are left down there, and are of able mind and body, may not ever go out and find jobs and apartments, and will try and free load off of the system for as long as possible. But that was not the case with most of them, and certainly everyone I met was genuinely grateful for the services we were providing, and were excited for the new jobs and homes they had found.

Even though Austin may never be home to these people, it's a great city, and I know we'll take good care of them, and at least it's not Houston (insert smiley face here).

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