Katrina volunteer says work gives life meaning

December 11, 2005|By CANDICE BOSELY


In Charles Dickens' story "A Christmas Carol," Ebenezer Scrooge's life is forever changed after he is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and yet to come.

For Karen Sumner, no holiday spirit (or spirits) was needed. Her outlook on life changed after spending more than two weeks in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans.

"I have a different perspective on life," Sumner said one recent afternoon as she took a break from coordinating the Red Cross' gift-wrapping booth at Martinsburg Mall. "What's important is good company and friends and family."

Trivial things no longer matter as much to Sumner, who gave as an example a project on which she was working before heading south.


While an addition was being built onto her home, she found herself worrying about the details. Faucets. Tile patterns. Light fixtures.

After sharing stories, hugs and tears with those in New Orleans, some of whom lost everything, it was impossible to later focus on such minor aspects of life, she said.

Sumner left Martinsburg on Oct. 10 and originally was stationed in Baton Rouge, La. She is a Red Cross volunteer trained in disaster assessment, client services and mass care and logistics.

When an assignment arose shortly afterward for New Orleans, Sumner volunteered to go there.

"New Orleans is one of my favorite cities," said Sumner, who has visited the city several times, with the latest before the hurricane being a trip to the Sugar Bowl, when she also celebrated New Year's.

In New Orleans, she and a group of volunteers from around the United States and Canada set up a mobile office - or "mobile help," as Sumner called it - at Municipal Auditorium.

"It was a great site to help people," Sumner said, adding that the site was easily accessible and offered shade while people waited for help.

Connecting with survivors

Sumner worked there for 15 days as the site supervisor with a group of volunteers that dwindled from 28 to seven. Paperwork was initiated by the volunteers for $3.6 million worth of Red Cross aid. The group served 400 to 600 people per day.

The group made up the first financial assistance unit to set up in the city, with checks arriving a few days later for those who needed help that ranged from $360 to $1,565.

One-on-one consultations were a must.

"We really wanted to connect with the disaster victims, or survivors as I like to call them," Sumner said.

Although many volunteers felt compelled to visit the disaster areas, including the hard-hit Ninth Ward, Sumner was not one of them.

"I was one of the few that didn't need affirmation of what happened," she said.

The stories Sumner heard were enough. Of people forced onto roofs. Into shelters. Who had fought not only Hurricane Katrina, but Hurricane Rita as well.

With the stories of grief and loss, some small positives were found, including from an unusual source.

"China cabinets seemed to come up a lot," Sumner said. "It seems that family heirlooms that were in China cabinets were saved."

A mother's china set or grandmother's crystal aside, loss seemed to be the most common story.

Nearly everyone knows the story by now, having seen the headlines and watched the television footage: Thousands of people dead. Bodies in the streets. Whole families lost.

"They were pulling bodies out of there when I left," said Sumner, who spend 23 days altogether in the Gulf Coast region.

Spirituality found

In this time of year when spirituality abounds for many, Sumner has her own perspective.

"Where we were located was the spiritual center of the city," she said.

Municipal Auditorium is near Congo Square, which was a spiritual site for American Indians and, later, slaves who ate, made music, danced and performed other activities there.

That aura affected the Red Cross volunteers.

"Spiritual things happened to every one of us," Sumner said.

Examples included directing someone to additional resources, giving someone a hug, listening to their stories, counseling them and crying with them.

Sumner believes she was meant to be there.

While the city slowly rebuilds, Sumner's thoughts are on it frequently. She keeps in touch with many of her fellow volunteers and recalled a time when she and her husband were strolling the streets.

During that past visit, she remembers saying to him, "Wouldn't this be a great place to retire?"

It's a dream on which she hasn't given up.

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