Volunteers of America's Evacuation

A Story of Gratitude

"Katrina caught us by surprise. All of us in New Orleans fully expected this hurricane to cross Florida, turn back to the central Florida coast and make landfall there. Of course, it didn’t happen that way.

Late Friday night, just over two days before Katrina eventually made landfall, we at Volunteers of America began implementing our hurricane evacuation plan. This involved getting the word out to hundreds of consumers we serve about the need to evacuate.

The most fragile and vulnerable of those we serve reside in our community homes for persons with developmental and intellectual disabilities. We had to evacuate 150 individuals, our staff and some family members.  As is our plan, we called in three large buses and six agency vans and began packing to leave Saturday morning. After several hours of loading, we waved  goodbye to the caravan.  We fully expected to see them all again in New Orleans on Tuesday. That was our evacuation plan...go to Houston for three days, enjoy the hotel and return home. We have followed this regimen half a dozen times in the last few years. Of course, it didn't happen that way.

Our City Drowns

When the water came into New Orleans, it didn’t go away for a long, long time.  Eighty percent of the city was underwater.  Twenty of Volunteers of America’s  properties had anywhere from three to 10 feet of standing water for about three weeks.

When the full reality of what was happening became evident, a multitude of emotions overwhelmed me. I wondered if this was the end... for the city,  for Volunteers of America in New Orleans, for all of the families, including ours, who are deeply rooted in south Louisiana. I worried for the people we serve and for our staff caring for them. Our hometown was literally drowning.  There was only one thing to do. PRAY. And oh how we prayed.

My mom used to preach that "in this family, charity begins in the home." My mother was right... again.  The love of our nationwide Volunteers of America family touched us early and often and sustained us physically, emotionally and spiritually throughout this ordeal.

The first people God put in our path was the staff of Volunteers of America Greater Baton Rouge. Thanks to them, we set up a temporary office in their city two days after the storm.  There, we began to get a grip on the crisis and started tracking down our staff and consumers.  Our North Louisiana affiliate sprang into action, too.  Many of our staff and consumers had evacuated to their area and needed longer-term housing and support. Chuck Meehan and his staff assisted our people in so many ways and continued to help those who relocated there. Our affiliates in Tennessee, the Southeast, North Alabama and Texas got deeply involved early on in the catastrophe as we worked feverishly to find alternative places for so many folks. Our national headquarters staff manned an emergency hotline on weekends and off-hours to provide vital communication.

Seeking Shelter For Consumers With Disabilities

After using our reservations for three nights, we were able to find rooms at another hotel outside Houston for four more. It was then clear that we weren’t going home anytime soon, and that there were no rooms available in the entire southeastern U.S.  Our next move was to rent 20 unfurnished apartments in Houston, sight unseen. On the Saturday after Katrina, our group packed to go to their third destination.  I traveled to meet them, stopping at every WalMart to buy air mattresses and supplies to equip 20 apartments.

When we arrived, much to our dismay, the apartments were filthy and uninhabitable. We all stood there, tired, stressed and frightened—the consumers still loaded on the buses—and wondered what to do.  We decided to do something I never thought I would do... place our consumers in an emergency shelter. We truly had nowhere else to turn. We called Houston’s Convention Center to say we were coming with 150 individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. They were helpful and directed us on how to enter the building. By this time, our group had been on the road for eight long days. It’s amazing how well everyone held up under these unbelievable circumstances.

Angels Help
When we arrived at the center around 9 p.m., we were immediately enveloped by the kindest people we could ever meet. They had prepared for our arrival by roping off a section of the center just for us. Volunteer doctors and nurses were there to triage all our folks, many of whom have serious health issues. They evaluated them one at a time. The center had lots of food and water. Volunteers set up beds in another private area. It took until early the next morning before everyone was settled for the night.

Around 1 a.m., I went to the volunteer station. The coordinator on duty was a college student who said he had volunteered to help people affected by Katrina. I made an entirely unreasonable request of this young man. I told him that in six short hours, our consumers with severe disabilities would be awakening. I explained that our staff was physically and emotionally exhausted and that we could use as many volunteers as possible to help. He said he would do what he could.

I don’t know how he did what he did but I know he was part of God’s plan for us. Before 7 a.m., we were joined by more than 80 eager volunteers who stayed with us the entire day. This group included special ed teachers, nurses skilled in working with medically fragile patients as well as many others who simply wanted to help. I didn’t get the young man’s name so I couldn’t thank him properly. All the people who helped us from the moment we walked into the Convention Center... doctors, nurses, volunteers and that young volunteer coordinator were placed on our path by the Lord and they carried us along on our journey.

A Temporary Home In Palestine
On that fateful Sunday, we were able to firm up plans to move to a small Texas town called Palestine, two and a half hours from Houston. Volunteers of America of Texas arranged for us to stay at the Lakeview Methodist Conference Center. We packed the buses and vans, the fourth move in nine days.

As we were  leaving, a 35-year-old consumer with autism named Enrico had to be hospitalized. Our staff took him to a hospital. The hospital staff felt that he would be discharged the next day, so we said we would be back then and continued to Palestine.

Actually, I think we were on a mission.  It had to be a God-driven mission, otherwise we would not have had the stamina to continue.  All we knew was that the Lakeview Center was welcoming us and had experience working with special needs kids during summer programs. I remember driving to Palestine alternately crying and praying aloud. We didn’t know what the future would hold. We kept thinking about that verse from Jeremiah... ‘for I know the plans I have for you, say the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.’ Our faith  in God supported, sustained, and strengthened us.

I remember driving into the Lakeview Center. Our folks entered a big hall as they disembarked from the buses.  At the front door, the first face I recognized was Mike King, CEO of Volunteers of America Texas, who drove from Dallas to greet us. Mike and his staff are another example of the gifts God presented to us. The next smiling face was a stranger who would quickly become a friend I have grown to love.  It was Pastor Von Dawson, who heads the Lakeview Center. Von, his wife Marty, staff, and many volunteers took us into the warmth of their community, nursing and nurturing us.

Von and Marty arranged for volunteer doctors and nurses to triage our folks.  A host of other volunteers welcomed us. This kindness and generosity went on for two months.  I feel it is my responsibility to care for the people we serve and the caregivers who serve them. Our people were taken care of, but not because of me. It was because of God’s plan to bring Von, Marty, the people of Palestine and many others, to minister to us in our time of greatest need.

More Angels Cross Our Path
As I was laying my head on the pillow at about 2 a.m., my cell phone rang. A volunteer in the Convention Center in Houston had found one of our consumers. Now, every time we moved our caravan of 150, we did multiple head counts to make sure no one was left behind. So I told her there must be a mistake. Then, she said the gentleman had a Volunteers of America name tag and his name was Enrico. I said this was not possible because Enrico was in the hospital. But it was true.  The hospital had evidently discharged Enrico and sent him back to the Center. A volunteer doctor on a break found Enrico, distressed and confused.

Though it was the middle of the night, a nurse offered to find a volunteer to drive Enrico to Palestine.  We decided that two of our staff who knew Enrico would go back to Houston to pick him up. When they arrived, Enrico was doing fine. At his side was the doctor who found him, his eyes full of tears. He would not leave Enrico until we arrived. I believe God works miracles such as these through the people He places on our path.

Weeks later, I got a call from Memphis.  A man said he and some church groups were sending us WalMart gift cards and trying to get us a handicapped-equipped bus. I had no idea who he was. Then he said, ‘I’m sorry, Jim, I didn’t introduce myself.  I’m the doctor who found Enrico.’ This man is another gift from God.  All I could do was say thanks and tell him how much I loved him.

Our Family Steps In
Our consumers stayed at the Lakeview Center for two months. As we lost many of our New Orleans staff, who left to tend to their own families and homes, we faced a staff crisis.  National staffer Angela King put the call out to our affiliates across the country.  They responded by sending up to ten staff members to Palestine for seven day shifts.  Our Volunteers of America family was there for us once again.

Staff from our Texas, North Alabama, Southeast, Delaware Valley, Chesapeake, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee, Western Washington, Sacramento and Oklahoma affiliates, as well as our national Health Services division, came to our rescue.   I can’t tell you how critical this help was. Here’s the amazing part—each time I approached these persons to thank them for helping, they had a similar response.  They all said that helping us was a life-altering experience they would cherish forever.  In giving to others, these wonderful people acknowledged they had received  much more in return. That is the hand of God at work.

Before Katrina, we were blessed to have some of the most caring, committed people working for us. But sadly, about 175 of our employees lost everything in the storm, and about 250 have not returned to the area. Even so, after the storm, our staff showed total dedication to the people we are called to serve. Most of our staff who evacuated with our consumers lost their homes and belongings. For weeks, some didn’t know how their families had fared. Yet, they continued to do their duty, serving the less fortunate.

Staff Serves Despite Losses
A prime example of this dedication is Vice President of Programs Voris Vigee, who had over eight feet of water in her home. She and her family lost all of their worldly possessions except the little they took with them when evacuating. They relocated to a Houston suburb, where her daughters attended school. Despite this turmoil, Voris was our leader on the ground in Palestine. When we returned home, she commuted to New Orleans from Texas. When things looked bleak, Voris would say, ‘God will take care of us’. We wish we could have surround ourselves with more like her.

After two long months, our consumers finally returned safely to New Orleans. During this long exile, so many hands rescued us, saved us, really, when we were drowning, literally and figuratively. We will never be able to adequately thank all of those who helped us. I can attest that I have truly experienced God through the acts and deeds of thousands of people of goodwill who have crossed my path this past year.

God bless them all."

First printed in 2005-2006 Annual Report