Twelve years ago, I went to Ocean Springs on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi with a group of volunteers to help people get back on their feet.
The organization I was with, Hearts With Hands, set up camp at a local Little League field and started offering boxes of supplies — toiletries, cleaning supplies (for people who still had a home to clean), diapers, water …
People rolled down their car windows and their stories poured out. I remember some of them still.
There was the mom and dad and little girl who appeared to be about 4. Their home had been destroyed, so they just wanted toiletries, and maybe a new toy or a couple of books for their daughter.
“We lost everything. Everything,” the father said.
“We’re staying with my parents,” the mom added.
Then the little girl spoke up, sounding tired and frustrated.
“When can we go home?” she asked. “I just wanna go home.”
A tear trickled down her father’s cheek.
“She doesn’t understand,” he said. “I don’t know what to tell her.”
Later a woman came in by herself. I asked what she needed.
“Everything,” she said.
“Toiletries a good start?” I asked.
She started sobbing and rested her head on the steering wheel.
“I hadn’t even thought of that,” she said. “Yes, I even need toiletries.”
I reached in through the window and hugged her.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, again and again as she clung to me, sobbing.
These people did not need your old winter coats with the broken zippers. They did not need your old prom dress or your old underwear.
Maybe your heart was in the right place, but we had mountains of clothes that no one would ever wear because there wasn’t the volunteer-power to sort them, and when we tried, we found only about 1 in 20 articles were actually something someone in the disaster zone could use in the 100-degree heat.
On the drive down, I crocheted a light cotton baby blanket, and when I encountered a woman with a 7-month-old baby, I gave it to her. The baby had loved his old blanket, but the family barely escaped with their lives. Mom and Dad didn’t have time to look for the treasured old blanket as they ran from the rising flood waters.
We had one volunteer who was a teacher in Ocean Springs. She had cruised through town the day before she came to us, looking for signs that everyone had escaped their homes during the storm. You could tell because rescuers had painted a big orange X on each home. In one quadrant of the X was a number, and that was the number of bodies found inside the home. This teacher had seen mostly zeros, but two homes had had a 1 in that quadrant. The teacher had no way of knowing who that number represented, but she knew her students and their families were hurting. Her house had lost part of its roof, but everyone escaped and now they were helping those less fortunate.
I believe people are mostly kindhearted when they donate, but some of us don’t stop to think about what people really need. Most of us have never experienced the total loss of everything we own.
Think about it. Your favorite coffee mug, that wonderful photo of you with your grandmother, the trinket your great-grandfather brought with him when he came from Ireland in 1855, your hairbrush, your heirloom quilt …
Suddenly, it’s just you and the clothes on your back in 90-plus-degree heat.
What do you want?
Certainly not someone else’s old underpants. Certainly not the bridesmaid’s dress that’s been cluttering up someone’s closet since their cousin’s wedding in 1986.
You want clean, comfortable clothes and shoes. You want a toothbrush, toothpaste and some soap, a washcloth and a towel and maybe a good book.
The organization with which I volunteered was a Christian charity and they included a Bible in every box of supplies. When I heard about the plan to do that, I doubted the wisdom of proselytizing, but just about everyone I saw open a box, lifted out the Bible first. No one handed it back. These people had lost everything, including the family Bible, and getting another Bible was huge for them.
Children need simple toys — books, coloring books and crayons and other craft supplies that can be used in a shelter or a motel room, perhaps a good stuffed toy to hug when trying to sleep in a strange place with hundreds of strangers around you.
People need flashlights and batteries, bed linens, pillows and snacks.
But most of all, organizations need money to fund their work. Your money can buy people what they need and it can buy from regional and local businesses that also need the cash to help fuel the recovery.
There are a number of reputable organizations offering help to those in need right now, and as with every crisis, there are a whole lot of disreputable thugs willing to take your money and run. You have the responsibility to find one that’s getting the most for your buck.
So, before you write a check, do a little homework. I’m including links to some highly recommended charities that are doing great work in and around Houston.
And donate the bridesmaid’s dress to a theater company.
Here’s a start in your search for reputable charities: