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Updated 1:00 PM October 4, 2005




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U-M volunteers answer call for hurricane relief

It was the girl with the sign that did it.

U-M graduate students Bob McGee and his wife, Christine Oldenburg-McGee, were watching early TV coverage of Hurricane Katrina when it happened: "I saw a little girl holding a sign that said 'America help us,'" McGee recalls. "I was completely compelled to put my life on hold."

"I felt very compelled to what ever I could do, even if it was something small," Oldenburg-McGee says.

The couple is among eight U-M staff, faculty or students so far who have signed up to be American Red Cross volunteers for Hurricane Katrina/Rita relief, the Washtenaw County Red Cross chapter reported last week. Around 300 U-M Health System staff members also have signed up as potential volunteers for hurricane relief organized by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

McGee is a former Ford manager and past Ferndale mayor; Oldenburg-McGee works as an intensive care unit technician at U-M Hospital. After taking the requisite day of volunteer training, they reported Sept. 8 to Beaumont, Texas. There, McGee was assigned to manage the first Texas shelter for Katrina refugees. During their 2-1/2-week stay, the shelter also housed people fleeing Hurricane Rita.

"There was a man who told me his 5-year-old child was ripped from his arms in the flood and he lost her," McGee says. "You're hearing that and you know you have to comfort him and redirect him to start a new life."

McGee estimates that the shelter served 12,000 to 15,000 people. He says that while there was enough food and water for refugees, there were other needs that also needed tending. "The people were still in a state of shock coming to grips with the reality their life as they've known it before is gone forever; loved ones are deceased," he says.

Oldenburg-McGee was given the job of supervising travel for refugees from the shelter to rejoin displaced family members, or to accept employment offers. "There was a 12-year-old girl that was separated from her mother, we found her mother in Atlanta," she recalls.

"The other part for me that was satisfying was to just allow myself to be an ear for people to cry, to vent, to do whatever they need to do. People were so very grateful for the help," Oldenburg-McGee says. "The biggest thing I learned is communication is so important in this kind of situation."

"We were expected to be the people with answers; it was frustrating in that sense," Oldenburg-McGee says, adding there was no central place to go for information. "There is still a great need for volunteers," she adds.

"I was deeply touched 20 times a day," McGee says. He says a county judge in Wichita Falls, Texas, called to offer rent-free shelter for 24 months for 200 families, and service industry jobs for those who accepted.

"What I found was the courage and the intestinal fortitude of the evacuees that have literally lost everything but the clothes on their back and yet still had the strong will to know they had to rebuild their lives and are attempting to do that," McGee says.

Pamela Reading-Smith, director of public support for the Washtenaw County Red Cross chapter, says that during training volunteers learn what to expect working in a shelter. "They learn about personal security issues, what to take with them, and what our expectations are for volunteers," she says. The Red Cross pays for volunteers' transportation, food and shelter, but accommodations can be basic. "We know some volunteers spent a few nights in sleeping bags on the floor," she says.

Jay Sennett, facilities coordinator with the School of Social Work, has taken volunteer training and plans to work as a Red Cross volunteer for two weeks starting Oct. 15. Sennett says he was motivated to volunteer for several reasons: "I was put off by all the finger pointing; it doesn't help anybody."

"When I heard the Red Cross needed an additional 40,000 volunteers I knew what I had to do," he says. Sennett says he also was inspired to act by President Mary Sue Coleman's call to the University community to assist those in need. "I am fortunate in that I have a supportive family and wonderful supervisor, Terry Bennett, who have offered unfailing support for my deployment," he says.

Since returning Sept. 26 from their stint as volunteers, Oldenburg-McGee and her husband still talk on the phone to those they worked with in Texas. The couple says they wanted to stay and continue helping. "But I'm in grad school and I'm not at a point in my program to put off a semester," Oldenburg-McGee says.

"It was very intense. We were gone 2-1/2 weeks but for us it seems we were gone two or three months."

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