Thursday, September 08, 2005

They have Beads...We have a Cow Bell

Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a party all night atmosphere as floats wind their way through the French Quarter. People yell "beads, beads, throw me some beads." The crowd wants beads and the decorated floats with their Krewes are prepared to toss them.

For many years the Astrodome was the home of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the largest Livestock Show and Rodeo in the world with over 1 million attendees each year. It is a huge cultural event for Houston. New Houstonians discover that though they may not own a ranch or have any cows, its a lot of fun with great entertainment. During February in Houston, it is not unusual to see more cowboy hats and boots than suits and ties.

We decided on Tuesday to introduce our new friends from New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana to a little Texas culture. Every time a member of the evacuee community found or reconnected with a loved one, we invited them to ring a Texas cow bell. There were several times during the day that it rang three or four times in less than five minutes. It was fun, and the evacuee community began to enjoy the celebration. There was clapping and "Yahoos" as people celebrated with those who were reconnected.

It was near the end of the day yesterday just a few minutes before eight when the ACT Center was to be closed that an elderly gentlemen made a phone call on the cell phone of a volunteer to the hotel phone # listed online where his daughter might be staying. He was retired and after retirement and the death of his wife he moved in with his daughter and son-in-law. Last night was the first time they had talked to each other in over a week. When he walked in he was slow and almost shuffled. When he walked out he was waving his arms in the air and almost dancing. He grabbed that cow bell and rang it for the longest time. There was cheering and hugs between the elderly gentlemen and the volunteer he had met for the first time only a thirty minutes before. They both cried together. The room was full of clapping and cheers as he almost ran out of the room to pack his plastic grocery bag with the few belongings he had aquired since being evacuated from the Superdome. His daughter picked him up last night and the volunteers who assisted him slept better, knowing that they had a small part in restoring hope to man who had almost lost all hope.

Prior to finding a room in the hotel, his daughter had been living as an evacuee in the Reliant Arena, a building adjacent to the Astrodome. So close, yet separated by miles of grief and anxiety for over a week. Today, with the help of additional volunteers, TFA will lead an initiative to reconnect family members at two other sites. Community Technology Centers with about fifty computers each will be set up in the Reliant Arena and the Reliant Center. Each of these locations have over 5,000 residents. Many are separated from their families and loved ones. The model and best practices for reconnecting families that was developed at the ACT Center will be replicated at the Reliant Center and Arena. This will require the volunteer staffing and training of over 170 volunteers during all hours each of the sites are open. With funds yet unknown, TFA will be seeking to employ Tech and Program Coordinators for each site as well as volunteers to work with the members of the evacuee community. "This is the most rewarding work I have ever done," said the volunteer who assisted the elderly gentlemen who was reconnected with his daughter and son-in-law. To find loved ones click on or use the web crawler search at the top of the listing of links at . CTCs and computer centers at relief sites across the country need to invite loved ones and survivors to go online, add information and reconnect. Share these links with relief center leaders and residents.

You too can assist mothers and fathers reconnect with their sons and daugthers. You too can do the detective work required to help brides and grooms of every age reconnect. Technology is only a tool. This work is about using the technology to rebuild lives and restore relationships, not just in a physical way, but also at a relational level. Many of the persons we have helped reconnect have learned to value their loved ones in ways never before experienced. Be a volunteer! Check in at the ACT Center on the bottom floor of the Astrodome at the South Entrance. We will train you and assign you to one of the sites. We especially need regular volunteers during the day and during the work week. The typical work shifts are 8 to 1, 12 to 5 and 4 to 9, but you can volunteer at any time during the day.

Today, I have a meeting with community technology leaders across the country to discuss the long and short term role of CTCs (community technology centers) in serving the evacuee community. Later today, I will be meeting with a TFA consultant who is assisting us in planning a training and education plan to assist the evacuee community that will be living in the Astrodome and the adjacent buildings. We believe that our responsibility to serve the evacuee community will continue on after all evacuees reconnect with or learn the fate of their loved ones.

Thanks for your support!

Will Reed