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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Blogging from a childcare center was a silly idea

I'm home now, back in San Francisco. I've been back for six days now. Three days of hiding out and reeling. (Thanks to my beloved Dave for letting me hide in his closet, 'cleaning' all day Saturday.) Three days of just reeling.

Things I keep thinking about:
1. I wish I could have stayed.
The kids still needed weeks and weeks of love and tiger masks and being read books and having their stories listened to.

2. M.
M's superior coloring skills, and equally superior team coloring skills (left handed, sometimes, to make sure you could both reach your obligated vine leaves and super monkey costume elements). His breakthrough being-read-to posture: right thumb in mouth, left hand reaching up to hold your left ear tightly (sometimes pinchingly), as if you might somehow wriggle out from under him and drift away. And his utter destruction of my safe string of kid questions.

R: "What do you do before you go to bed? Have a snack? Brush your teeth? Do you take a bath at night or in the morning? Some kids say prayers before they go to sleep. Do you do that?"
M: "Yes, sometimes cereal. Yes. I take a bath at night."
And the last answer, he launches into unhesitatingly, and without introduction...
M: "Now I lay me down to sleep I pray the lord my should to keep if I should die before I wake I pray the lord my soul to take. And god bless my mommy, and my little sister and my daddy. (As an aside to me) He dead. He got shot."

M will remain tugging tightly, distraughtly, reassuringly on my earlobe for longer than expected.

I think I responded so speedily to 826's request for help because I felt so hopeless after the tsunami in Southeast Asia. We'd been to beaches there earlier in the year. The resort I wanted to advise my aunt to take her small children to, recommendable after sneaking through their exquisite pool system, turned out to be a hot news photo because of all the bodies in the exquisite pool system. The exquisite pool system was still so close in my physical memory, the almost too warmness of the water, the deep blue tiles, the thorn in my foot from beach grass, my heart beating fast at our illegitimate bar presence, the heat of walking out the front doors of the resort and skulking down the maintence road to the beach. Paradise unfurled. Not swept clean, but swept into a decaying pile at the bottom of a jungle mountain. And nothing useful to do.

What I did in Houston was small. Small in stature, small in time, small in impact.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

An entire city made of paper

Just as I arrived this morning chessboards were the hot topic. Everyone wanted to play, and the kid with the board was gone. So we started making chessboards. I googled images to figure out the number of squares (8x8), and kids cut out circles for checkers (12 each). We colored like mad. A young brother and sister were almost finished when their older sister arrived to tell them they were moving on to their new house. Off they went, supplies to finish quickly combined in a spare plastic grocery bag. And they were gone.

826 was blessed and plagued by a small boy in a red shirt. He'd wheedle in between a tutor and the kids the were coloring with. He'd tear through our tables, scattering everything within reach across the polished concrete floors. He'd run into the pushbar emergency exit doors at top speed and escape out of the residential area. He'd hit, and threaten with scisors.

While all of this was going on serious urban planning was underway. Or lack of planning. Three palates of flattened cardboard boxes were being speedily transformed into a city. It wasn't clear if the tutors or the kids declared it was New Orleans, but New Orleans it was.

Fact straightening

Reliant City is transforming again. Rumor is that the Red Cross will condense refugees down to just the Astrodome by this weekend. We're flexible about setting up shop, and will follow the kids. The main exhibition space is vast: 706,000 sq ft. In SF each wing of Moscone North and South is 442,000 sq ft. Numbers of people living in the Reliant Center seem to have leveled off at about 5,000. The shelter holds 1/40th of total evacuees, but out group of volunteers is still reeling at the scale of our small piece of the pie.

Childcare seems to not be available in the Reliant Center. There is daycare in Reliant City, but it's talked about as being a fair distance away. In the Town Square, which I haven't visited yet, there are kids activities set up. Red Cross rules specify that kids under 10 must be accompanied by a parent. The day of a refugee seems to be filled with lines for shoes, lines for clothes, lines for kid supplies. Kids wander freely in a 500,000 sq ft room while parents look for housing off-site, stand in line for essential services, or escape by sleeping. Yesterday we were one of three remaining kid activity centers. The computer center is really cool. Unstaffed gaming tables rounded out the offerings.

An 826 volunteer commented the presence of our Korean Buddhist relief agency neighbors was puzzling, as there were no other religious orgs. I pointed out that the Red Cross was there (as is the YMCA). Is the Red Cross a religious org? My research indicates that, though the lovely Clara Barton may or may not have viewed nursing as a Christian calling for herself, the Red Cross is pretty damn good about keeping god out of their execution of core Christian (and humanitarian) goals. More here on the Red Cross. The Buddhist neighbors made perfect sense to me...they're usually not much for evangelizing.

Right. Facts. Coming later: facts on the Hilton Americas refugee population, conversations with radio pirates, and the kid who unhesitatingly chose brown to color in the water in his drawing.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Before the flood of school busses

Some kids are bussed out to local schools. We've cleared off piles of art stuff, and sharpened pencils are ready for homework help. The first two white refugees I've seen at the center passed by recently. I remain impressed by the kids I've worked with. Everyone has been under eleven. An emergency room doctor in from SoCal mentioned that the kids are fine. It's the teenagers that are walking wounded. One young one, hanging around in a red shirt all day long, won't talk.

Speed post...i'm temporarily relieved of hat-making duties.

I'm in the main shelter room of the Reliant Center, on the shore of a sea of beds. We're a few dozen chairs, 6 tables, 15 volunteers, and a massive pile of kid crafting supplies. I've spent the morning helping todlers cut tape, and making any costume bit the kids can think of out of construction paper. To date: yellow visor with blue number nine, a princess hat with hot dogs and red beans, green supergirl power cuffs with birds and pink stars. Kids are hungry for attention, as usual. So far, other than the odd setting, I could be in any museum activity area in the country. Maybe not any museum...the thirty-so kids I've met have all been black. In fact, I haven't seen a single kid here who wasnt black. On the volunteer sides of makeshift booths, the skin is white. The blue wristbands for refugees and the orange volunteer wristbands are barely necessary. More on wristbands and security later.

Announcements ring out over loudspeakers constantly, "Would the 109-year-old man in the wheelchair return with his family to the triage tent?" Offers of rides to Riverside, California with housing for one year, lots of disconnected families searching.


One cool thing about residing temporarily in a schwank hotel amongst a displaced population that, I suspect, includes teenagers is fire alarms. O, how the fire alarms get pulled. O, the amusement. O, the outcry for help, for attention. It may well be an emergency here. We can not sleep. The situation is alarming. We should all blink our bleared eyes and wonder.

Monday, September 12, 2005

in motion

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I'm new. New to volunteering* with a SF-based nonprofit, 826 Valencia. I'm also newly ensconced in Houston's Hilton Americas, as are an unknown quantity of nattily dressed businessmen, and an also unknown--but greater--quantity of nattily dressed Hurricane Katrina refugees. There may well be more volunteers with other orgs, more our modest crew of a dozen, but I haven't met them yet.

Tomorrow I head out to Reliant City (RC) with our crew. Tonight the early team recapped the day's adventures. They arrived and connected with the team from the Houston Children's Museum, whose carpeted and video game-filled tent is set up in RC's parking-lot-turned-town-square. The museum's temporary outpost was nixed for being inconducive to tutoring and creative writing with kids. After long wandering through the vast convention center the 826'ers settled on a place to call home. They set up shop. And kids came. They have good stories from today. And sad stories. I'll post my own stories tomorrow.

*826 Valencia volunteering experience to date:
9/8-Performed several mail merges in MS Word, applied resulting labels to envelopes.
9/9- Assisted 6 high school seniors with the initial stages of drafting UC admissions essays in their classroom at Leadership High.
9/12-Flew on plane to Houston to spend week setting up/ staffing 826 Reliant City. Boldly.