When Katrina struck, he borrowed a truck from the U-Haul dealership where he worked his second job. Instead of loading up his worldly possessions before fleeing the path of the storm, he loaded up relatives and neighbors; they squeezed into the holding cell of the borrowed truck for a dark, sweaty, 12-hour escape across Louisiana to a shelter in Lake Charles.
Once they got there, his fiancée, who was seven months pregnant, started having contractions. Doctors at a local hospital stabilized her, then decided to discharge her back to the shelter on strict bed rest. But how can she be on bed rest there, he wondered with rising panic, when the only bathrooms are hundreds of yards away and shared by a thousand strangers? So he spent his savings on a hotel room. As she slept there, he hunched all night over the hotel's computer, surfing the Web for a way out.
On hurricanehousing.org, he found a Phoenix housewife and part-time Realtor who owned a vacant rental property in Fountain Hills. She had posted the property as a haven for evacuees, not at all sure what to expect. What she got was an ersatz family of four: the man, his pregnant fiancée, her 7-year-old daughter, and their 22-year-old friend.
They arrived with just the clothes they were wearing, so the Realtor circulated an e-mail requesting donations: money, food, clothing, baby items, shoes, a vehicle, a bicycle -- anything, from anyone.
I got the e-mail from a friend of a friend. I had no cash to spare. I was weathering a storm of my own: My husband had lost his job. He hadn't found anything full-time to replace it all year. We were strapped, stressed, struggling with three young boys, a Scottsdale mortgage, and four part-time gigs between the two of us.
We were better off than the evacuees, but we weren't in any position to pony up serious money or time.
Still, I felt compelled to help. Isn't there anything I can give? I wondered. With our youngest approaching 3, we found a stroller and other baby items that we didn't need anymore, so I enlisted my sons in a backyard mission project: We hosed off our stuff for this as-yet-unmet Family in Need.
As we approached their donated condo, my husband and I decided to put a bit of our emergency fund into pizzas that night for the lot of us. The man greeted us, so appreciative of our old things. He talked quickly, eager to pour out his story, his eyes wide, as though he was telling it and hearing it for the first time.
He'd been in Phoenix less than 48 hours, yet so much had happened. The Realtor had taken the man's fiancée to see an obstetrician. Having just flown on a plane for the first time in her life and landing in a strange city, the young mother-to-be now confronted yet another emergency: pre-term labor. She was evacuated again, this time by helicopter -- to Good Samaritan Hospital in downtown Phoenix, where she would spend the next two months.
One of the three jobs I was then working had me posted at Good Sam three days a week. This traumatized stranger, torn away from a home that might no longer even exist, was confined to a bed there. She had no friends in the area to visit her, and the loved ones with whom she'd fled the storm zone were stranded an hour away with no transportation.
I can give my lunch hour, I thought.
I brought her magazines, taught her to knit, found hairdressers to come in and braid her hair, held her hand when she cried, sat with her while she slept. I hoped my visits would help take her mind off her troubles. I never realized that they were already starting to do the same for mine.
At one o'clock in the morning on October 15, my phone rang: "The baby is on its way. Would you come to the hospital?"
I forced myself awake, drove to Good Sam, and there I held my new friend's hand as her labor progressed. In the post-Katrina chaos, this couple hadn't taken any birthing classes, and the baby's father leaned against the wall, looking unsure. "Stand here," I whispered, beckoning him over, "and hold her other hand."
That's how they welcomed their baby daughter into the world. And I had a ringside seat to a miracle.
Born two months prematurely, the baby spent another six weeks in the hospital, and I got to spend my lunch hours visiting her in the NICU. Once the baby was healthy and home, I went around to everyone I knew, like a kid on a treasure hunt, and solicited donations of little pink garments, housewares, gift certificates for food and gas.
Just before Christmas, I got another call: "Will you stand up for me at my wedding?" Again I was honored, again a little awestruck. Yet I knew that although our circumstances were very different, we were a lot alike. We both knew more than we'd ever wanted to learn about all kinds of storms, real and metaphorical.
Reaching out to help someone in need helped me jump out of the rut of being overwhelmed by my own situation.
Everyone has his or her own long to-do list and share of challenges. It's so easy to get mired in the details of your own life. And sometimes the best way out of that mire is to lend a hand. National groups such as Habitat for Humanity, the Special Olympics, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and lots of home-grown Valley organizations could really use your help this year.
When I thought I had nothing to give, I thought harder and saw that I had quite a lot. After that it got easier, and in giving, without ever expecting it, I got to feeling better. I got a new friend. I got perspective. I got peace. I really did.
In giving, I got. Like to knit?
Project Linus is an all-volunteer organization that supplies newly handmade security blankets to ill or traumatized children in shelters and hospitals (www.woolworks.org/charity). You can also knit helmet liners to warm the heads of American troops all year long (www.packagesfromhome.org/volunteer/).
Like to read?
So do people who are visually impaired, and your eyes and voice can help them do it, thanks to Sun Sounds (http://sunsounds.rio.maricopa.edu).
Volunteers at Phoenix Zoo (www.phoenixzoo.org) do everything from observing and documenting animal behavior to shoveling poop to staging educational puppet shows for the public. If you'd rather volunteer to work with animals from the comfort of your own cage, become a foster parent for a golden retriever (www.golden-retriever.org), desert tortoise (Arizona Herpetological Association: 602-273-6445), or Siamese cat (www.azrescue.org) while it awaits adoption.
Rock newborn babies in the hospital ICU; do arts and crafts or play games with kiddos; assist families in locating educational materials in the local library; or push the coffee cart around to refresh weary parents at Phoenix Children's Hospital (www.phoenixchildrenshospital.com).
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Like to keep fit?
Exercise your heart muscle in more ways than one. Train for a marathon with Team in Training (www.teamintraining.org) and raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
For information about more Valley volunteering opportunities, visit volunteermatch.org.