Today, Hurricane Isaac in Houston, is reminding me of Katrina.
On September 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and sent thousands of evacuees to Houston. By September 1, 2005 the already weary Astrodome was temporary home to 16,000 victims of one of the deadliest hurricane's in US history. Here are my memories of taking the "Magic Quilt" to the Astrodome to work as a volunteer. I had no camera then, so I grabbed a few images from the internet. I still have vivid pictures in my head.
Heading to the Dome
On September 13, 2005, I loaded the Magic Quilt, a parachute cloth, some puppets, bubbles and art materials into my car. I felt an odd rush of nerves as I steered towards the Houston Astrodome where evacuees from Hurricane Katrina had been housed for almost 2 weeks.
I wasn’t sure what kind of volunteers were needed, but I knew I was pretty good at distracting children. Families can get irritable on a one week vacation, so I could only imagine what kind of relief parents and kids might need after being tragically removed from their homes, only to be cooped up in an already sad looking stadium.
In a building outside Reliant Park, I went through a drawn out screening, before I was given a Red Cross volunteer band. Instead of waiting for my assignment, I joined a line that was already going through security.
Sneaking Out on My Own
I figured I’d find my way to the Astrodome and decide for myself where I could best be used. But a woman in a Red Cross vest spotted me as I entered and handed me a pair of rubber gloves. She asked me to assist the folks on the first aisle.
I took that vague assignment and wandered down the cot lined aisle, only offering assistance to those who made eye contact. I felt like my plastic gloves distanced me from these people. I wasn’t picking up trash or giving exams...why did I need to wear them?
In one hour I met some interesting people and heard a few sad stories. I even watched a small group gather around Kanye West who had come to offer support to victims in the Shelter. I had only heard of him recently when I'd seen his face on TIME.
But after a while I began to feel like I was intruding more than helping. So I walked to the trash bin and removed my gloves. I headed back to my car and returned through security with my Quilt and other supplies. I searched the sea of cots, covered in army blankets and looked for an open space. There were a few clearings in the jammed space, where cots had been removed. (A sign that a family was given temporary housing and had moved out) I found a big enough spot and spread the quilt on the concrete. I laid out some drawing paper and puppets and began to blow up a beach ball. In no time at all, nearby children began to move towards the quilt..
Kids on the Quilt
I assured the moms that the children were welcome and soon the blue border of the quilt was filled with small bodies, staring at my giraffe puppet name Pickles. A few began to join in with a couple silly songs and before long the kids were at home… in fact louder and giddier than I had expected. Time for the parachute cloth to harness that energy.
I spread out the colorful nylon circle and the kids put all their attention into waving the cloth in frantic ripples…creating a mountain…spinning around like a carousel…blasting our faces with parachute wind! Our spot in the middle of the Dome was all energy, color, laughter and squeals!
So many giggling and grinning faces watched the cloth fill and deflate. These children had every reason to be grumpy, sad, fussy or angry, but each face was totally distracted by the parachute. The events of the last few days surely changed these children, but at this moment they seemed only to feel the wind of the waving cloth and the giddy sting of their arm muscles at work!
As the material lifted I stared at the colors just like the children, but when the parachute deflated, the surrounding cots distracted me. I saw weary adults sitting on drab colored cots. I saw the waiting and the worry. Occasionally I saw an adult’s face light up to see a child react. And there were some smiles of appreciation. But unlike the children, their smiles faded quickly. Only the children had the ability to truly enjoy the moment.
Wanting to Ask...
We finally put the parachute away and moved onto quieter activities on the Quilt. For the next 45 minutes the quilt became a tiny oasis in the hollowed space of the dome. I no longer felt distracted by the gloom of the surrounding cots. I was totally mesmerized by the children around me, coloring with crayons and jabbering as they fiddled with puppets and small toys.
Five-year-old Tony bounced and wiggled and chattered while he scribbled on paper. Eleven-year-old Tia picked up a toy microphone to serenade us. Two-year-old George rolled around the quilt with the beach ball.
I wanted to know about these children who gave so few hints. Did any of these children experience the horror of the New Orleans Superdome? Were any of these children carried down flooded streets? Tony’s scribbles had no pictures of escape and Tia’s song lyrics were more comical rap, than blues. Tia suddenly pretended to be a reporter and she interviewed me about my green eyes and wanted to know where I lived. I wanted to take the toy mic and ask her questions…but I didn’t.
Eventually most of the children drifted back to their families. Tony left his scribbled paper. George’s mother carried him off kicking and crying with a smelly diaper. Tia borrowed my funny white gloves with button fingers and went off to perform a finger dance for friends.
I finished picking up the toys and was ready to fold the quilt, when Tony suddenly dashed back to the quilt and landed in a heap beside me.
"We’re leaving now.” He whined. I looked down to see fat tears rolling down his cheeks. I asked, "You mean you’re leaving the astrodome? Your family is leaving?” He nodded yes and leaned into me, with a big hug. I asked if he wasn't happy about that news. “No.” He frowned. “I want to stay here."
Symbolic Plaid Bags
I saw Tony’s family of five walking towards us, with the same large plaid bags everyone used for their belongings. Tony caught up to his parents as they walked towards the exit. Their serious expressions seemed to reflect the endless questions of their future.
Housing? Jobs? Schools? But Tony’s sad expression seemed to reflect the sadness of what he was leaving behind... his new friends, the donated Ben and Jerry’s ice cream he’d been eating that morning, the toys and the soft quilt.
A Tiny Gift
The quilt was folded and the puppets were packed. I glanced around before leaving and noticed George asleep on his cot. He must have worn himself out over the diaper battle. I held up the beach ball and whispered to his mother. “You can keep this for George if you want.” She smiled and nodded.
A Little Guilt
I headed out of the Astrodome feeling guilty. Guilty, that I wore an orange volunteer band, which meant I was going home. Guilty, that I wasn’t taking a family with me to share our rooms and food and cars. And guilty, that I’d spent the day laughing and playing with the youngest and most resilient of the evacuees, when I thought I’d come to “work”.
Theme for Hot August
My group of seniors at the community center taught me the names of different boats in Spanish. And then we got down to business.
Who needs fancy art supplies or even photos or props? This group is happiest with a tiny project that allows them to chat and laugh and share.
The group folded and decorated and chatted and laughed. We heard about Alberto's job as a boat mechanic in Honduras. We heard about Elba's job as a nanny who traveled with a family to Europe...and saw gondola's in Venice. And Lourdes told us about going fishing in a boat called a chalupa!
My Mom's Group
My mom and Ernest had fun looking at some of the toy boats.
We had a young visitor. Just watching a child have fun with boats was entertainment enough for many.
Playing in Water
It's too hard to explain why an iron ship can float. So we did a little experimenting with sinking and floating. There were a few discoveries that surprised us all.
Robin looks fairly serious in this Coast Guard hat, but mostly he kept us laughing with some funny stories. Rita actually shares a similar humor, so they were a good pair.
We made a mess and the quilt was damp, but we had fun.
Andrea snapped this photo of me before we started cleaning up. I was feeling pretty happy because I had just learned something.
What I learned: Actually I was just reminded of the secrets that music can unlock. We had been brainstorming different kinds of boats when someone mentioned the Row Your Boat song. I started singing and all the voices joined in. Like riding a bike, none of us forget that song. Just as we got to the second line I heard Robin's voice coming in with perfect timing to create a round. I had thought a round would be too confusing, but it was perfect! And then I heard Ernest's voice adding some harmony! He plays clarinet, but I didn't know he had singing talents as well. And my mom's voice beside me... I could have been a kid again with my mom singing that simple song. The expressions around the table seemed so pleased and I hated to let the never-ending song end. I didn't want to stop the magic. But it finally ended. And everyone clapped!
Embracing the Summer!
Off to meet the Quilt Group, with lots of shells.
What to choose? Some Hawaiian slack-key guitar? Calypso? Beach Boys? Jimmy Buffet or Harry Belafonte? I couldn't decide so I grabbed a mini steel drum from home. It was quite a hit. It's amazing how a metal, percussive instrument can sound so gentle and melodic and soothing.
We each chose one shell. While a recording of waves played, we took some time to use our senses with the chosen shell...touching, smelling even listening to our shell. (we only wondered about how it would taste) Then with eyes closed we tried to find our own shell in the collection.
I told about when I was 10 and my family went shark teeth hunting in Venice, Florida. Pearl talked about walking barefoot on the beach. Rita remembered the beaches in the northeast and the sounds of food vendors calling out to advertise their hot dogs or cold drinks. Our special guest Azim, told us about fishing in the ocean in the Virgin Islands!
Azim and the Steel Pan
Azim learned how to play the steel pan when he lived in the Virgin Islands. He was able to play some songs that we all recognized. Woody was particularly delighted when he could sing along with "You are My Sunshine".
A Change in Mood
I was alarmed when I heard Woody's singing voice suddenly grow weary. "Youuu arrrre my sunnshiine..." I turned to see his once laughing face looking nearly tearful. Rita was turned towards Woody, singing slowly with him.
Her expression matched his pained one. I caught Azim's worried expression so I knew I wasn't reading this wrong. But before I could step in to help, Woody and Rita burst out laughing! They were having a good old time taking a cheery song and making it gloomy. These 2 really keep me on my toes!
Postcards from the Beach
After talking about our favorite beaches we imagined the postcards we might send... from Hawaii or Miami or the coast of Spain! We used rubber stamps, markers and colored pencils to make our own beach postcards. I really should have brought stamps and we could have sent them somewhere!
What did I learn? A visit to the beach engages all the senses. It was fun remembering what we used to see, smell and hear on a trip to the beach. But our senses change with time.For many of these folks, talking about those memories is just enough. When I brought out a bottle of Coppertone, I thought we could each take a whiff and be transported back in time, to a day at the beach when people used suntan lotion instead of sunscreen! But that tropical lotion smell brought about little reaction. Mostly that is because Coppertone is my smell memory, not theirs. But also, our abilties to smell diminish with age. I need to remember that.
Another fool proof theme for adults and kids...I thought.
I was loaded with fun stuff. Best of all I had irresistible circus music!
Community Center Goup
Once again I seemed to pick a theme that wasn't ideal for my folks who grew up in different cultures than mine. Most said they had never gone to a circus.
The music helped. There's nothing like a little calliope music to make a group playful. First we had a little juggling with scarves. Then the music inspired a few, who stood up and began dancing with the scarves!
My group is happiest when there is some kind of hands on art. It actually was pretty fun watching them come up with different clown face designs.
Like an old fashioned quilting bee, the ladies begin to jabber and gossip...in Spanish. This is what they love. But I try to gently steer the group in sharing thoughts. We managed to stay on theme a bit...talking about favorite circus animals and even about the famous Flying Wallendas. I can only imagine how much fun I'd have with this group if I spoke Spanish!
My biggest challenge for my next group was that our usual meeting room was in use. We put the quilt on a table in the middle of the bustling family room.
We were surrounded by distractions of other activities, music, animals, even paramedics coming through. I already deal with folks who have attention and hearing issues, so I was practically tap dancing on the table to keep this group focused.
A Brief Dancing Tangent
Our circus music and colorful props drew in more people than usual. But our storytelling and discussion activities were constantly being interrupted. So we went for less talk and more action.
I started up a little scarf juggling demonstration when dear Kathleen walked up. For a moment I thought she might just grab A colorful scarf from the table and move along, but instead she reached for mine. Kathleen loves music and the Barnum and Bailey music playing in the background was all the inspiration she needed. Suddenly Kathleen was grinning and we held the scarf together, dancing and twirling around while the Quilt Group cheered us on from the table!
I took the same stuff to the Women's Shelter, excited to really have fun with this theme. I've never had anything but success using a circus theme with kids.
But it happened to be a day with very young children. No one over the age of 3 and none who could really speak more than a word of two.
Happy to Play!
But these sweet little ones don't need a theme. They rolled the juggling balls and chased them. They rolled the little clown on his unicycle, back and forth and back and forth. They pointed out pictures in a book of circus animals and they paraded around the quilt with the juggling scarves...waving and wearing the scarves...not juggling!
What I learned: Some days are a challenge no matter how well you plan. And that is that!
For 20+ years children have called it the Magic Quilt. They've danced and pretended all over these colorful squares. I've dragged it to schools, shelters and studios where children have climbed on top to hear Magic Quilt Stories and to act them out.