Thursday, January 5, 2012

Summer Camp: Red Cross Chili and Babies Don't Always Mix in Disaster Relief

In August of 2005, I had just wrapped up my very first summer in a director role at a residential summer camp.  Shortly after the conclusion of camp, as I celebrated the end of the summer, Hurricane Katrina ravaged part of the southern United States.

At that time, as the nation struggled in its own baffling response involving FEMA, people fleeing New Orleans and surrounding areas from rising flood waters, millions upon millions of dollars in damages, homes and lives destroyed.  People were glued to their TVs and watched as a city and region drowned and faced catastrophic destruction.

As the nation struggled in their response, I found myself several hundred miles away, tucked in my cozy summer camp safely away from this disaster.  I've always known that 'my camp' was a special place, but never did I imagine being asked to attend a meeting that simply started with "What are we going to do to help with Katrina".  We brainstormed ideas and dreamed up many different things we could do to support the various organizations and people of the Louisiana area.

At the end of the meeting, we received a call from two retired camping professionals who were driving in their RV from Minnesota to New Orleans to support local YMCAs in their relief efforts and wanted our help.  As they drove across the country, a plan was devised and several of us from our own camp volunteered to head down to support them in their efforts.

The overall plan:  Provide support and relief for families of relief workers who tirelessly labored to help their community.  How would we do that?  Well, we'd do what we do best - we'd create a summer camp that would function as a relief center - right in the midst of the New Orleans vicinity. We'd take over a childcare center attached to a hospital and we'd provide programs for children who's parents were working round the clock to save their city and neighborhoods.

We didn't know where we would be staying, what we would eat, how we would do it, but we packed our gear and headed out into this great unknown of  Summer Camp Disaster Relief.  As we prepped to leave, word began to spread of our efforts and we welcomed several other people from other YMCAs throughout the Northeast.  We were a group of over caffeinated summer camp freaks heading out into a great unknown to try and make a difference.

This adventure had most of the team pushed out of their comfort zone in many ways.  An unknown environment in a disaster setting,  Where would we stay? What would we eat? To this day, I will never forget our friend, "E", who upon hearing that food might be an issue packed over 750 Strawberry Nutri-grain Bars..."you know, just in case".  This adventure provided many memories, but seeing a large suitcase crammed and overflowing with Nutri-grain bars is something I'll never forget.

When we departed for New Orleans, we were one of the first planes to begin landing in New Orleans.  It was awesome feeling as everyone on the plane consisted of relief workers: construction, police, sysco, pepsi, army, etc.....and us, a small rag tag bunch of camp people from the YMCA.  It felt like we were right out of the movie "The Right Stuff", sans the Astronaut outfits of course.

The "Camp" that we created was awesome.  Kids as young as just a few months old to 17 years old joined us every day as their parents went off to save their city.  While their parents fought the good fight of restoration, we gave the kids their own 'relief' from the chaos of their homes.  Every child had stories of how their homes had been damaged and their lives effected by the hurricane.  Morning, Noon and Night, the Red Cross arrived on site to provide meals for the kids in our 'Camp'....and yes, as we consumed Red Cross fare, it slowed down our Nutri-grain consumption. (in case you were wondering).

We tirelessly created memories for kids out of little material and a lot of imagination.  We hardly stopped to rest.  Often it was common for us to rotate from working with one age group to another to mix up our own experience.  In one moment you could be leading team building activities with teens and then changing diapers and rocking babies.  After a few days of supporting the families of relief workers, we opened our doors to anyone.....and all of this without every charging a dime.  Kids came to us and their parents tried to restore their cities, or in some cases, their lives.

One memory I'll never forget involved the day I spelled another friend and entertained all of the toddlers in our program.  Throughout my life, I've always worked with teens.  It happened to be lunch and the Red Cross arrived to feed us......Chili.  So here I was, with about a dozen children from 2-3 years olds, a table, chairs, a handful of napkins, plates, utensils and tons of Chili.  Toddlers don't eat Chili on their own too well.  By the end of the meal, all of us were stained with a red chili tinge to us, Chili was EVERYWHERE.....and the episodes that occured in diapers later....well, that might be best left up to your imagination.  I still makes me shudder.

After one week, we learned we would be relieved by other YMCA staff throughout the country.  This camp continued to run for several weeks over the next few months, each week with new YMCA staff to take part in what is now known as "Kamp Katrina".  We returned home...our homes were still intact and the many families we left still were in a process of rebuilding.  However, through the crisis, we provided laughter.  We provided a release from the stress of disaster.  We provided friendship.  We made a dent in those Nutri-grain bars. We even provided Chili.

It's been several years since Hurricane Katrina, but I still think back on that experience daily.  People can work together in challenging situations and help others.  People can make an impact.

You don't need to wait for the next disaster.  Begin your impact today.

This Is The Life You Have......

I don't have many pictures of this trip, but here are some shots of the first generation of "Kamp Katrina"

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