Thursday, September 01, 2005

Refugees do NOT love piles of crap donations

I woke up needing to know what was happening in New Orleans and spent all morning with the online accounts of the devastation. Dr. A said it well, later during my session: when we feel like helpless witnesses to a catastrophic event, we want at least to bear witness to the stories. That's just precious and all, but why was I feeling so overwhelmed by it? I sure as shit didn't just lose everything I owned, my job, my family. The images that were hitting me the hardest were of the elderly and the infirm. An image of a woman weeping next to her husband's body, which was wrapped in a sheet. He had lung cancer, and when the family was cut off, he ran out of oxygen and died. He was going to die anyway, that's not the point. I hurt for her. It was her job to keep him comfortable, and she couldn't do it anymore. I knew that feeling very well. So well, it hasn't left me, and all day, I have scrambled around town, doing odd things to help local efforts, trying to get her out of my head.

There were a few refugees at the Berger Center in Austin Texas, where the Red Cross has set up an emergency station to catch any overflow from the Superdome. I was one of many people who just showed up, not knowing how best to help, to get an idea of where help was needed. I knew this wasn't necessarily the best way to go about helping, but I was in a bit of a daze. Being early into the thing, and with only a few families at the station to take care of, the Red Cross volunteers had little to offer in the way of advice, except stock answers: the Red Cross needs trained volunteers. Go help answer the phones at headquarters, make a monetary donation to the Capital Area Food Bank, there's nothing to do here.

There were a lot of "donated" clothes and food at the Berger center, well-meaning (and not so well meaning) people had come around and dumped off a bunch of old clothes at their doorstep. One of the volunteers, Theresa, told me that they were about to get in trouble with the AISD for having that big pile out in front. The plan was to take the clothes to the Goodwill centers; the refugees would be given vouchers to shop at Goodwill. She had been told that a Goodwill truck would be coming around to pick up the clothes, so I offered to come back around to help load them up.

I drove over to the HEB store and picked up some canned tuna, water, and diapers, because that's what the Capital Area Food Bank had asked for, and drove them over to the Bank itself. A big, burly Marine guy, who I'd noticed at the same store, pulled up behind me. There was no one free to tell us where things went, so I looked around and found that there were large, marked boxes to put donations in. Meanwhile, Marine guy is bitching up this guy who didn't even work at the food bank: why don't you people have someone to direct us out here? How the hell are we supposed to know where to take the food?

Clue for Mr. Marine man: the volunteers have their fucking hands full. Figure it out, just like I did, it wasn't that hard.

I went back to the Berger, and waited around for the truck to help load it, folding clothes in the meantime to make it easier for those who were trying to pick through the pile. It wasn't much to do, it just made me feel better. There were reporters and photographers trying to snag a story; one guy's just filming the shit out of me cramming clothes into trash bags. Give it a rest, dude.

I don't like feeling helpless. There was a lot of busy work that I did when I was taking care of my mother (who had ALS), that felt just like what I was doing: mostly busy work, not necessarily crucial. I hated that people had just dropped this shit off in trash bags, some of it worthless, and went home feeling like they'd done their good deed for the day. I hated that they expected the Red Cross to deal with it, or that the refugees inside would love nothing more than to dig through random piles of stained clothes.

Even the media was wondering why we were taking the clothes away to Goodwill, like there was something unsavory afoot. A reporter asked me suspiciously: "Where are you taking these clothes? Aren't they for the refugees?" I wanted to say: "actually, there to be sold to benefit the Kill Unwanted Children Fund," but I held my tongue.

So here's a clue for everyone: please do not dump off your trashbags full of broken toys, out-of-season, old, stained shitty clothes, and dirty, torn bedsheets at the Red Cross shelter. Or anywhere, for that matter. For one, donation boxes are not dumpsters. For two, if you want to really help, find out what's going on in your community, and respond to the needs listed by legitimate organizations. Otherwise, you're just creating extra work for those who are trying to get a job done.


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