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Our Many Helping Hands

AFTER Hurricane Andrew, the Army and Red Cross took over the fairgrounds in West Palm Beach, Florida. It's now a stopping point to receive, sort, and send to the worst-hit areas whatever supplies are being shipped in from around the country - food, radios, batteries, diapers, and other needed goods.

One Saturday night, three weeks into the relief effort, a reporter on the local six o'clock newscast said that volunteers were still needed and that the fairgrounds operation was running 24 hours a day. When I arrived, one of the volunteers at the check-in table was leaving. I gladly took her place and welcomed the opportunity not only to help, but also to observe the variety of people, stories, and motivations that brought the volunteers.

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One man came from Sumter, South Carolina. He said we Floridians had helped his area after Hurricane Hugo and now he wanted to "pay back a little."

Two muscular young men with T-shirt sleeves rolled up over their shoulders came from New York City. One of them had a tattoo on each shoulder: a coiled snake on his left and a skull on his right. I jokingly asked him, "Does your mother know you have those ugly tattoos?" He grinned and said, "It was during my Navy days. And, yes, she knows." He looked about 21, so I wondered when his Navy days could have been.

Another man came in noticeably clean and with his hair wet and slicked down. He had gone to his motel, showered, and returned. He acknowledged that his cleanliness wouldn't last long, but he felt refreshed and ready to work again.

A man from Tennessee with a curly gray beard said he was staying in the quarters on the fairgrounds where the truckers sleep. He had been here four days. Currently unemployed at home, he decided to volunteer here. He wanted to be busy and useful.

There was a noticeable difference in the approaches of volunteers arriving for the first time and those who had been here before.

The new ones were hesitant, timid, needing to be told where to sign in and where to wait for the Army officer to give them instructions on how to do the job assigned to them.

The experienced ones strode up to the table, signed in, slapped on a name tag which, they said, wouldn't last, and marched off to where they had worked before. Usually that was unloading trucks. Unless it was loading trucks. Or sorting goods into boxes.

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One young woman showed us the bruises on her arms and legs from lifting boxes. She could hardly write her name because her fingers were sore.

The volunteers arrived in spurts of twos, threes, and sometimes half a dozen. During a lull I walked around the area and saw a buffet table of donated food, free for the Army and volunteers. Stick-to-your-ribs food like potatoes, meatloaf, beans, bread, lasagna. And lemonade, fruit punch, and water. With plenty of ice.

At 8 p.m. the temperature was still about 84 degrees, with 70 percent humidity. The work was either outside or in un-air-conditioned buildings. The volunteers mostly wore shorts and shirts, though the Army was a bit over-dressed in fatigues designed for a cooler climate.

The only air conditioned building contained the phones and computers. There were about 100 phones but at that time only about 20 volunteers. The phones were quiet and some of the volunteers bored. But the Red Cross supervisor assured them their activity would pick up.

NO two people look alike, but in one sense, all the fairgrounds volunteers looked alike. That is, there were no special badges to specify one's authority or experience (or lack thereof). Consequently, people came to the check-in table with questions they assumed we would understand and know the answers to. Amazingly, as the evening progressed and our experience increased, we sometimes did know the answers.

A group of five local Guardian Angels signed up to help. As the female leader handed one of the men his name tag, she said, "Here, Babe, put it on." With his wire-rimmed glasses he looked more like a youthful college professor than a tough Guardian Angel.

I said, "So your name is Babe. Has that been any problem for you?" They all laughed and he replied, "Nope."

During another lull between waves of fresh volunteers, I talked with the first lieutenant waiting to give the next orientation. She was a tall, African-American woman with her hair neatly tucked under her camouflage cap. She spoke with a Northern accent, maybe Philadelphia, though I never got to ask. We talked about her rank. She said it seemed to take a long time to move up. Half jokingly I asked her if this assignment would count toward some kind of field promotion. She laughed and said, "I was in Saud i last year and didn't get a field promotion." Quietly I thanked her.

I only worked a few hours, but I felt as if I saw many lifetimes of stories. Some volunteered unwillingly. Others appeared convinced that their efforts that night would save the world. But whether with a mission in mind or not, their efforts helped. Our area of Florida didn't sustain nearly the damage that occurred south of us. But the relief efforts at this location are making a difference in the hard-hit areas. I'm sure of it.

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