Volunteerism, Here and Away

Karol Collymore

I cried very, very hard the week after Hurricane Katrina. I felt my blackness, I felt my privilege, and I felt despair for the poor that I didn’t realize were there. I screamed “outrage” because communities of poor black and white people were left to die. They were called refugees in their own country and were called looters instead of people that were just trying to feed themselves and their family. There were no helicopters to rescue them, no water drops, and no real response from our government for too many days. I felt pain, as did many of you, and then I went back to work and tried to shake off the bad feelings.

My father went to New Orleans and Mississippi and has been back several times. He helped me with my housewarming party where I collected items for the victims of the storm. I felt like he was representing me with his trips and I could sleep soundly in my bed. In my mind, he was retired so he had plenty of time to go back and forth to help. My excuses for not going ranged from not being able to take time off work to taking care of the house I just bought. Silly, I realize now because I had it all to come back to when I was finished. An opportunity has arisen for me now to lead a charge to go to New Orleans and continue the work of many volunteers and my own father.

Hands On Greater Portland - an organization that matches volunteers with projects around our city - is working to put together a group of people to work on homes in New Orleans in the coming year. I want to go and I plan to bring my friends with me. As my family of friends start reaching 30, the world is not getting simpler for us, but we are realizing the amazing power we have to affect the world that at times, leaves us wanting to escape open coconut bars on Tahiti. We are leaving our selfish 20’s behind and accepting our roles as world citizens in our version of adulthood.

Volunteering has become a vital part of my life here and I hope everyone can be inspired by helping their neighbor as they would help themselves. Portland is alive with the best and the brightest and its time for us to give our gifts to those whose light does not shine as brightly. Check out Hands On Greater Portland and see how easy it can be to give a little time to something that puts your best skills to use. We can’t save everyone, but we can help. And by reaching out, we save a little of ourselves as well.

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    Karol, your post seems to complement mine a little too well. maybe there's something in the air. i really believe that where we are moving is to this understanding of community and the commons, much as Thom Hartmann preaches. volunteering is a traditional, timely and always needed part of this.

    the "issue" that has been hard on me for some time is Darfur; i have done absolutely nothing in that regard, and the need is so terrible. i don't know what kind of volunteering can help with ending that tragedy; i get overwhelmed at times at all the different things that need to change in this world. but i look at what has happened in Northern Ireland since Clinton got involved, the amazing agreement that occurred this week. if the Irish can learn to live in peace after the way they slaughtered each other, it gives me hope.

    but i'm still struggling to figure out my place in the "how" of it all.

  • Susan Abe (unverified)

    I'm all with you on every word except:

    They were called refugees in their own country

    This attitude makes me so angry I can't see straight.

    I'm a journalist. I had to live through the arguments in the fall of 2005.

    Basically, I met five kinds of people who got freaked out about the use of the word "refugee" to describe the people who fled their homes and sought refuge as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Their arguments:

    1. "People who've had to abandon their homes aren't refugees unless they've had to abandon their country." Look, lots of refugees flee their homes without crossing a national border. Take the people in Darfur, for instance -- I know some of them have crossed to Chad, but does that mean the rest aren't refugees? Or the Palestinian refugee camps. "Why don't we call them 'internally displaced persons'?" Ummm ... because we say "refugee" when reporting about any of the other internally displaced people in the world?

    2. "Refugees are people who've suffered horrible things, like war or destruction." People who really didn't want to admit that these were people who had just lost everything they had and would need somebody to give them REFUGE -- and a substantial amount of help if they were to return to the place they had called home.

    3. "How dare you call an American a refugee?" Snobs who think Americans are somehow a different species from the rest of the world's humans, and therefore inherently immune to being refugees. The Manning brothers (the NFL stars) pushed this position.

    4. "'Refugee' is a racist term." People who don't remember the floods of European refugees in WWII, who don't realize that Palestinians are white (inasmuch as "white" even exists), or who never really thought about refugees think that to call someone a refugee is to accuse them of not being white. And they think that it's somehow an aspersion to call somebody nonwhite. Many of the people who argued this way were African American. Disgusting.

    5. And then there were the people who didn't actually think about it, but were impressed by the passion felt by the first four groups for their arguments, and felt it was somehow immoral or offensive to point out a flaw in a flawed argument. These are the people who give political correctness a bad name. Some of my bosses, and figureheads at the top of a lot of news organizations, took this position (or its shabby cousin, that it's a bad idea to fight something you can give up on without looking like you lost anything) and declared that it would save trouble to just happen to use some other term. They, of course, never had to fit "people who left home and sought refuge after Katrina" into a headline that had exactly enough room for "Katrina refugees."


    I'm sorry, what Karol's doing is wonderful and worthy and what she deserves is praise, not an attack.

    But I just hate the implication that being a refugee means that you aren't wonderful and worthy and that therefore we have to defend some people (but not all people) from being called "refugee." There are too damn many wonderful, worthy refugees around the world whose humanity you belittle when you argue that.

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    Here's my problem. I visited New Orleans last August...and the devastation is so bad, the failure to help these people so egregious, I know it's a good thing to help rebuild lives --and structures-- one at a time, but it's not enough.

    These are Americans, this is America, and that this adminsitration has been so pathetically incapable of dealing with the crisis...that's an impeachable crime of the highest order. This really requires government stepping in...and those in it who won't need to step aside, or be swept aside.


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