Heading South to Help

The line of needy New Orleans evacuees wound through the parking lot, then bottlenecked inside the narrow hallways of the small American Red Cross center here in this city 30 miles upstream from the Gulf of Mexico.

Camarillo, Calif., resident and Red Cross volunteer Diane Campbell _ who had worked since dawn and, judging by the size of the crowd, would stay until nightfall _ surveyed the milling, anxious crowd and said there was no place else she’d rather be.

“I told my husband this kind of work almost feels like a calling,” said Campbell, 41, who met her mate while volunteering on another disaster 13 years ago in Hawaii. “It’s just something I have to do.”

Her words are echoed almost verbatim by scores of other volunteers, young and old, who have answered the call to help victims of the nation’s worst natural disaster.

The Red Cross relief effort for Katrina victims is the largest in its 125-year history. More than 5,000 Red Cross volunteers have joined up to serve in more than 470 shelters in 12 states, and more than 600 additional volunteers are being deployed every day, according to the organization’s Web site.

In Lake Charles, thousands of evacuees who left before Hurricane Katrina struck are stranded in emergency shelters, hotels and the homes of relatives and strangers.

Like their counterparts who left the flooded city after disaster struck, they have lost everything. They came to the American Red Cross for help in getting money to tide them over after exhausting their bank accounts and credit cards.

A few miles away in the Lake Charles Civic Center, 3,000 evacuees who left before the storm struck are getting back on their feet, thanks to volunteers like Campbell.

Since her deployment to Houston, Baton Rouge, La., and then finally Lake Charles, Campbell and her fellow volunteers have worked practically nonstop getting clothes, money, first aid and job information for scores of displaced Louisiana residents.

Monica Kelsey, 33, is a mother of two who used her two weeks of vacation to join the Red Cross volunteer corps.

“There’s an adrenaline to giving; it’s such a good, gratifying feeling,” said the native of Fort Wayne, Ind.

Said Campbell: “This is something larger than we’ve ever seen in this country; we all have to do something in any way we can.”

The disaster’s immensity was brought home to many through television images and has also drawn volunteers in their teens and early 20s out in droves.

Dozens of Web sites aimed at Generation Y have sprung up on the Internet, informing young people of ways to help and get involved. Site sponsors include the Young Democrats of America and the Connecticut Young Lawyers Association.

One site, http://dosomething.org, offers high-school and college students ways “you can have their back on the Gulf Coast.” Suggestions include having high-school students and sports teams round up pencils, pens and backpacks for their peers who lost their homes and schools in the disaster.

Teenage and college-age volunteers in Lake Charles are turning out.

Lauren Davis, 20, of Lake Charles, said she met a family through her church who needed clothes. She brought the items to the Civic Center and saw the hordes of other families in similar need there.

“I just had to … help,” she said.

Her sister, Stacey Lowin, 17, stood nearby handing out tiny baby socks and diapers to a mother.

“I just care about all these people,” she said.

John Whaley, Jr., 17, and Trouaskie Hudson, 18, are best friends. They stood side by side handing out Q-tips and sundry items to needy families in the Civic Center.

“This is our own 9/11,” said Whaley, who was born and raised in Louisiana.

“It’s amazing to see everyone putting aside all their differences _ racial, financial, background _ and come together.”

(Contact Tamara Koehler of the Ventura County Star in California at www.venturacountystar.com.)