2005-12-29 / Front Page
A Hands On experience with disaster, despair
N.B. resident spent Thanksgiving week aiding Katrina victims
BY JENNIFER AMATO
The world has suffered several devastating disasters over the past few years, causing people from all countries to lend their aid and support in a time of need.
But what happens when time passes by and life moves on? Who is around to help the victims who are still struggling with their everyday lives?
Tierney Verderami, 23, a graduate of North Brunswick Township High School and a psychology graduate student at Monmouth University, spent Thanksgiving break volunteering with Hands On USA, a volunteer disaster relief organization in the Gulf area. Along with her classmates Amanda Hardy, of Point Pleasant, and Dave Kogos, of Belmar, Verderami volunteered her counseling expertise and spent the holiday with a family in Biloxi, Miss.
“One of the reasons for going down there is because right after the hurricane, you heard so much about donating money and donating food. Months go by and you hear less and less. ... It is important for [the victims] to know we did not forget it is an ongoing battle,” she said.
Using their own expenses to travel 23 hours each way and reside in a Methodist Church recreation center, the three stayed in Mississippi from Nov. 20-25.
“We had meetings with our students in the [graduate] program starting in September. We were trying to find an organization, but the Red Cross and Salvation Army wanted trained people, and we are not licensed counselors. The week before Thanksgiving we heard of Hands On USA, and they wanted us to come down,” she said.
The organization, which is currently cleaning out houses, distributing food and blankets, taking care of pets and cutting down trees in the area, to date has tarped, gutted or cleared trees on over 550 properties. They allowed the students to be part of the Street Team, distributing goods and listening to the stories of the victims.
“You hear a lot about New Orleans and that area, but we knew Mississippi was hit hard too. Three months later there is still disaster down there — it’s devastating. People are living in tents next to their houses or living in FEMA trailers. They still need the basics like food, water, clothing and blankets. There is debris everywhere; it’s a mess,” she said.
They spoke with about 25 families in the area, and Hardy’s Sunday school class made quilts for them. The group also brought with them coloring books, games and toys.
“The children were so happy because they have nothing,” Verderami said. “I was really surprised because they were so, so grateful. They were so warm and welcoming. I didn’t really know how they were going to react, but everybody I saw was so happy. It was very emotional.”
Although Verderami had some reservations about leaving her own family on Thanksgiving, she said it was extremely rewarding to spend it with a distraught family.
“Once I got down there, I felt I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way,” she said. “
They spent time with a single mother who had a 3-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son.
“She was stranded in her bathroom for four hours on her toilet seat. As the water was rising, she held her children up so the water wouldn’t reach them,” she said.
The grad students were also affected by a man they gave water and sneakers to, which he badly needed.
“We were there for an hour and I was crying, and then he started crying. Then we hugged. He said, ‘I didn’t know love like this existed. We don’t see that down here,’” referring to the volunteers.
She said that one of the hardest scenes was watching two young children sitting outside of a trailer stare at a cardboard box.
“They said they were watching TV, but it was just a cardboard box with a picture of a TV, and old TV box. We gave them coloring books, and they were so happy.”
She also described bridges still torn in pieces, houses in the middle of the road, knocked off their foundation, and signs knocked down all along the highway.
“You see pictures in magazines, but you don’t realize the effects until you actually see it,” she said. “Hands On people volunteered to make street signs. I got so upset because the government didn’t really take care of it.”
Verderami said that her week in Mississippi has affected every aspect of her life.
“It was really a life-changing experience, being down there. I was so amazed at the volunteers because they are so dedicated and motivated. They are there day in and day out,” she said, adding that a typical house gutting can cost $4,000, which most families do not have. “You don’t really know it until you see it. You don’t know the effects and the devastation until you see it. I really wanted to experience that.”
It has also propelled her to continue with her psychology degree instead of focusing solely on education.
“I want to work in a school setting. I wasn’t sure about continuing the program in what aspect, but I definitely want to stick with counseling,” the part-time NBTHS substitute teacher said.
Verderami is also considering returning to the Gulf over winter break as part of Hands On.
“Things are happening for them; things are coming together slowly,” she said.
For more information about the Hands On organization, visit www.handsonusa.