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Filling a Forty-Foot Trailer

Our Lady of Mercy parishioners, neighbors deliver the goods.

Kate Marshall knows that almost anyone can write a check.

In the wake of a Hurricane Katrina — which experts estimate could have a financial impact of $25 billion in property damage alone — writing checks is important.

“I think it’s really important to pray, and I think it’s really important to write checks,” Marshall said.

But a check is still something intangible — it carries the idea of assistance, but that idea can’t be measured.

Marshall wanted to do something hands-on to help the homeless and displaced victims of the hurricane, and she felt that her friends and neighbors wanted the same thing.

So at 2 p.m. on Sept. 5 she got on the phone. She called John Kane, the businessman and Republican leader who owns Office Movers. Kane offered to donate a 42-foot truck trailer and a driver to take it wherever she wanted. She called Catholic Charities in Lafayette, La., and asked them if they could distribute a truck full of donated goods. They said ‘absolutely.’

It was 5 p.m. All she had to do was find a way to fill the truck.

Marshall sent off an e-mail that night to a few dozen friends, who sent it to others.

“We've all read the horror stories coming out of New Orleans. … I know many of you have or are planning to donate to the various relief agencies that are helping the victims of this devastating storm,” it read. “Here's something hands-on that you can do right now.”

The Office Movers trailer would be parked in front of Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church on Kentsdale Drive beginning Saturday morning and depart for Louisiana Monday morning, with whatever people could bring in 48 hours.

Catholic Charities said that the most needed items were bottled water, personal care items, over-the-counter medications, diapers, and canned food and drink mixes.

Friends passed the e-mail to friends. Marshall made sure to send it to friends with children at various area schools, and asked them to forward it to their school e-mail lists. Mercy’s pastors talked about the project from the pulpit.

On Saturday, the cars arrived in bursts. On Sunday, they streamed in steadily from 9 a.m. until past dark.

“We’ve had people come up with … 35 cases of water,” Marshall said. “People I’ve never seen before. … But this is just people, so many people saying, ‘I just really wanted to do something. I’m writing a check but I wanted to do something.’”

Her husband Kirk Ruthenberg quickly learned how to pack a roughly 3,000-cubic-foot container.

“It’s like a puzzle,” he said.

Ruthenberg and Marshall’s children arrived. Max Ruthenberg-Marshall, a University of Maryland student, picked up her brother Michael Ruthenberg-Marshall, who just started at Georgetown University, and the pair arrived together to volunteer. Another son had to leave mid-day to work a shift at Giant Food and returned with donations from other employees who had heard about the effort.

Many of the Potomac residents who arrived with trunks full of shampoo and diapers parked their cars and pitched in for a few hours packing boxes. Marshall had included a telephone number in the e-mail she sent out and her cell phone rang every few minutes. People wanted to know if the truck was still there, and what they could bring.

Businesses pitched in too. Drink More Water dropped off 350 cases of bottled water, providing the men packing the trailer with some advice — don’t stack the water cases more than five high, or the cases will be crushed under their own weight and leak.

Thomas House Coffee Service brought coffee canisters and supplies from Silver Spring.

Twenty and sometimes 30 volunteers sorted the goods and packed boxes, which formed a large semi-circle around the rear of the trailer.

Mary Waller, an 11-year-old sixth-grader at Connelly School of the Holy Child joined the volunteers after her family got out of church at 11 a.m. Sunday. She stayed, without her parents, until sunset.

“My dad had a few friends that were down in New Orleans and I spent about a full night looking for someone that they knew — his mother and a friend of theirs. We found both of them on the Internet,” Mary said. “I just really want to help those because it’s just such a terrible thing that’s happening.”

Marshall and the other volunteers finished packing the truck at around 8:30 p.m. Sunday.

“Everybody gave this huge cheer when we finally closed up the truck,” she said. “It’s heartwarming. It’s gratifying that people are willing to do this.”

Marshall said the trailer was between 90 and 95 percent full.

Even after the deadline had passed, her cell phone kept ringing.

When Marshall rendezvoused with the truck driver Monday morning to give him the trailer’s padlock, another man pulled up. He had a trunk full of diapers.

She loaded them in at 8:45 a.m., and the truck got on the road at 9.