The Arlington chapter of the Red Cross considers itself lucky if the number of people attending one of its bi-monthly volunteer training sessions hits double digits.
Yet last Thursday 60 people packed a room within the Diocese of Arlington complex to learn how they could help support the organization's relief work following the devastating wrath of Hurricane Katrina.
“The system to train people is over-subscribed,” said Carole Sullivan, financial donations coordinator for the Arlington Red Cross. “The response has been overwhelming. People are walking in with checks all the time and a lot of them want to get involved and volunteer.”
Across the county, residents, businesses and organizations are donating staggering sums of money for hurricane victims and finding creative ways to help aid the recovery efforts in the Gulf Coast region. From bake sales to basketball tournaments to the simple act of cutting a check, Arlingtonians torn by the macabre and distressing images on television are opening their wallets and committing their spare time to assist the people of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
As of Monday the Arlington Red Cross had deployed more than 60 people to the affected areas for three-week assignments. It has trained another 270 county residents in disaster response techniques who are ready to be dispatched in the coming weeks. The Arlington Red Cross plans to continue sending volunteers down for at least the next month, said Lynn Kocik Keefe, the CEO of the Arlington Red Cross.
The chapter also sent volunteers and staff members, armed with hundreds of care packages, to the D.C. Armory.
RETIREE MARGARET JAMES was so excited to be sent down to Montgomery, Ala., this past weekend that she doubted she would be able to get any sleep before she embarked. James will be working in a shelter helping to serve food and providing other services for displaced people.
“After seeing everything on TV, I felt like I needed to do something,” the 67-year-old said.
Because of family and professional commitments, many of those assembled for the Red Cross training session said they regretted that they would be unable to travel down south.
Marly Sanchez-Lowery said her experience working in human resources and management, along with her proficiency in Spanish, will enable her to coordinate disaster management operations here in Arlington.
“I can’t take time off to go there but I will do whatever else they want me to,” she said. “It just tears my heart out.”
Hundreds more have called or e-mailed to offer their services and $65,000 worth of checks had been personally brought into the Arlington Red Cross offices, Keefe said. That figure does not include the amount Arlington residents have donated online to the national organization.
While there are no plans to formally shelter evacuees in Arlington, 150 people from the region are now staying with family and friends or in hotels throughout the county, said Keefe.
Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington has helped eight families find housing through local parishes. The organization will also be supplying mental health counseling, clothing, furniture and employment assistance to those who move to the area, said Stephen Luteran, Catholic Charities’ executive director. Additional collections will be taken up at all masses on Sept. 17 and 18.
Officials from county schools, which were so influential in fund-raising endeavors after the Asian tsunami last winter, were scheduled to meet early this week to assemble a coordinated donation campaign, said Arlington Public Schools spokeswoman Kim Duran. Initial efforts were complicated by the start of school last Tuesday.
Some schools have already put together individual benefit programs. Students at Swanson Middle School were organizing a “Quarters for the French Quarter” initiative, where students bought paper chain links, which will be displayed in the cafeteria, for a quarter. Hoffman-Boston Elementary School held a basketball marathon to solicit money for Katrina victims.
THERE WAS A proliferation of bake sales and lemonade stands on the busy roads of Arlington this weekend. The three Coyle family children, along with five neighborhood friends, collected $520 in a mere five hours, taking donations in exchange for brownies or fresh tomatoes and basil. The group gave the money to the Red Cross.
“I was happy because I didn't think we would raise a lot,” said Hayley Coyle, 12. “It was great to help other people.”
Robert Giron arranged a pot-luck dinner for residents of North 1st Street on Friday evening. Seventy-five people attended and each family brought a dish and check in tow. The charity dinner raised $3,500 and gave people a forum to discuss their ire with the planning and response failures of federal, state and local officials, Giron said.
“We had everyone come together to talk about what we did and why,” he added. “It was important to explain to the children that we are obligated to help our fellow citizens.”
Of course it was not just private citizens who were eager to give of themselves and their money. Safeway grocery stores enabled customers to buy scanable donation tickets and promised to match up to $100,000. Walter Chuda, owner of a Burger King on Columbia Pike, placed canisters in front of his cash registers and pledged to match up to $25 of every contribution.
The organizers of the Rosslyn Jazz Festival, a free concert held last Saturday, announced they were giving all proceeds from beer and T-shirt sales to hurricane victims.
“The area is the cradle of jazz, blues and gospel music so it's only fitting that an event designed to celebrate the fruits of that music try to give back to that community,” said Jim Byers, marketing director for the Arlington Cultural Affairs Division.
Many of those gathered at the Diocese building for the Red Cross training session expressed their displeasure that they had been unable to offer their services sooner. Several said they had called for days before they were able to secure a spot. For now the Arlington Red Cross has no more emergency response training sessions scheduled.
“People want to give more than just money,” said Amy Souza. “A lot of Americans want to help and can’t find a way to. It’s a frustrating experience.”
There is a “good chance” that the branch will offer new sessions once the paperwork for the first batch of volunteers is completed, said Jennifer Rice, who works for organization.
“We’re telling those who want to volunteer to be patient because there will be opportunities well into November,” said Keefe, the Arlington chapter's CEO.