There are no television cameras there to show Hurricane Katrina’s destruction. And no federal aid has come yet either. But the residents of rural Laurel, Mississippi, a town of 20,000, will soon receive a semi truck from Champaign carrying thousands of pounds of canned goods, water, diapers and infant formula. A small but willing group of ordinary folks from central Illinois and central Mississippi, who met for the first time this weekend, made it all happen.
Elizabeth Scarbrough of Seminary, Mississippi arrived in Champaign early Friday morning with her six children to stay with relatives there and in Homer after the hurricane hit. Her house survived the damage but most of the people in the surrounding areas have no electricity or telephone service and are running out of food.
“We have enough at our house,” said Mrs. Scarbrough. “We were prepared. We have the money and a large extended family to help us. Most people don’t have the resources. They see no aid coming. Whatever aid is coming is not coming to central Mississippi.”
With permission from Sam’s Club, Mrs. Scarbrough and her sisters and their children set up tables outside the store and took cash and food donations. Shoppers were greeted with signs that read “People Helping People. Food Drive. Help Save Others!”
They didn’t have an organized plan, but a lot of faith that help would arrive, and it did.
Carol Ammons of Urbana was one of the shoppers who responded to the call for help and then organized a team of helpers. She contacted her neighbor, Charles Sims, who owns CP’s Tuck Pointing and Chimney Sweep, and asked him if he would donate his trailer and truck and drive the supplies 10 hours to Laurel.
“I said, ‘Yes,’ let’s go,” Mr. Sims said. “From what I’ve seen on TV, I don’t know how to put it in words. It’s just the right thing to do.”
Volunteers loaded up Mr. Sims truck but as the tires of the trailer sagged under the weight of the items, volunteers feared that it would not make the trip and switched to a spontaneous plan B.
Vacellia Clark of Champaign called Art Hightshoe who owns Simonton Windows in Paris, Illinois. “I knew the kind of heart he had,” she said, “and I called him.”
Mr. Hightshoe delivered a tractor trailer from Paris two hours later, and 30 volunteers loaded it up .
Tyler Kimble, 10 years old, was one of the volunteers. “I feel very very good because we’re helping the people down in Mississippi in the shelter,” he said.
Kelly Vetter attends Westside Church in Champaign and is the sister of Elizabeth from Mississippi. Ms. Vetter’s church donated a couple thousand dollars so that additional food items could be purchased from Sam’s and Wal-Mart.
One of the members of Westside Church who came out to help but didn’t want to give his name said, “Everybody’s focused on the tragedy in New Orleans because you can see it on television. You take the rural areas of 100,000 people in a county and it’s hard to cover on the news and get help to them.”
Volunteer Anne Hightshoe is a Spanish teacher at Mt. Carmel Academy in New Orleans. Her school is completely gone.
“We’re telling our students to enroll in the schools in the cities they’ve relocated to,” she said.
Ms. Hightshoe spent the day helping load the trucks. “I had the perfect life down there,” she said. “I hope people don’t give up and will come back. I don’t think people have a clue that this is the worst thing that’s happened to us.”
The food that’s on its way to Laurel will also help displaced residents of New Orleans. Twelve hundred people from News Orleans are staying at a shelter in Laurel, according to Vondell Spradley, a volunteer with the Red Cross in central Mississippi.
According to Mr. Spradley, who spoke by cell phone, volunteers with the Red Cross and Salvation Army are working hard to get food out to 119,000 people in four surrounding counties, most of whom have no electricity or phone service and a dwindling food supply. About twenty percent of Laurel has power he said.
“We’re trying to get food, water and ice to people in the counties,” Mr. Spradley said.
People need ice to keep their insulin and heart medications from spoiling. “We definitely need help,” Mr. Spradley said. “We’re going to overcome it.”
Partners Emily Kuntz and Tiffany Boyd of Madison, Wisconsin were visiting this reporter in Champaign when I received a call for help. The three of us spent a couple of hours collecting food from my neighborhood and collected 10 boxes.
“I just thought it was great to have people give me stuff out of their homes and not know who I am,” Ms. Kuntz said. “You can’t drive through a town and get to know it. You have to get to know the people so it’s much more meaningful that way.”
“It was an interesting way to get to know the community,” Ms. Boyd added. “I saw a part of Champaign that I wouldn’t have seen. For me it made a real personal connection. After a stressful week at work that personal connection was revitalizing.”
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