The front side of the story is how an affluent suburban community opened their homes to five moms and 14 kids. And how the most resourceful woman in America--hotel maid Mable Brown--saved herself, her kids and her entire extended family by keeping her wits about her and trusting the voice of a stranger on the phone.
But the backside of the story, the one that people often don't think about is--how do you maintain your compassion when the feel good part of your good deed is over? And how do you learn to let people help you, when you've always survived by going at it alone?
It's been three weeks since Mable Brown first called me from her cell phone inside the Astrodome. Appropriately enough, that first call came on my birthday. I'm beginning to wonder if it wasn't God's way of telling me, "It's time to grow up."
As great as it felt to help Mable and her family in those first few days, the insights I've gained since then have made me think about what it really means to be a child of God. And how you have to open your mind and get over yourself, if you really want to make a difference.
The day after Mable Brown and her sisters landed in sleepy Snellville, Georgia, a friend and I drove back to the downtown Atlanta Greyhound station to see if we could locate their missing boxes of Red Cross supplies that had gotten lost on the bus.
With the refugee moms asleep and their kids playing at my neighbor's pool, I began to navigate the grindingly slow world of the poor. As the overworked, yet surprisingly cheerful Greyhound clerk led me to the caged-off room of boxes, I naively wondered why they hadn't just looked it up on the computer and shipped them out to my house the way the airlines do.
When I called my husband from the sea of dirty boxes to confirm the claim check numbers, I heard all the kids laughing and splashing in the background, and I was struck by the disparity between our worlds. Mable and crew were back home living in my life, where a quick call from your cell phone brings a guy with pizza to the side of your pool.
And I was sitting in a dirty bus station spending hours looking for boxes of blankets and pajamas--free supplies that a family who had just lost everything was anxious to claim.
Later in the week when we took Mable and her sisters to register with FEMA in Atlanta, I took one glance at the long line of refugees spilling out the door of the vacated Wal-Mart and thought, "Surely we don't have to wait in that?" The sisters sighed wearily and resigned themselves to a long afternoon of snaking through the traffic cones. But I had to check with the supervisor before I could fully assimilate the idea that there actually was a six-hour wait.
The long lines and confusing systems for emergency help were only the beginning of the challenges we faced.
Try figuring out a way to get to work when you have no car. Try getting an apartment when you've got a broken lease in your past. Try helping your kids adjust to a new school, new food and a new family routine, while you're just as out of sorts by it all as they are. And try living somebody else's house, when you wish you were in your own.
A friend of mine at church who is also sponsoring a family says, "When you see a hungry, naked baby, it's easy to know what to do. But when you have to help these people get a job or find a place to live, it's harder. And when you have to overcome obstacles like lack of education and no transportation, you almost want to give up or at least go back to easy needs like food and shelter."
Helping Mable over the long haul is going to be a more challenging than getting her family out of the Dome. Which is, of course, something any experienced social worker could have told me before I started.
But beyond dealing with the daily grind of living life on minimal means, I'm trying to learn how to provide the right kind of help in the right kind of way. How do I honor Mable's role as head of her household while still giving her some support? And how do I paint a picture for her of what her life can be, without belittling the life she had?
Providing a hand up is always harder than giving a handout--both for the giver and the receiver. However, the potential rewards are worth it, for both sides of the equation. When my Unitarian church first jumped in to help the hurricane victims, I said, "If every church in America takes in three or four families, this problem will go away overnight."
I was only half right. The hurricane refugee "problem" will go away if we all come together, but the transformative effect it has on our lives isn't an overnight thing--it will be with us forever.
I'm very fortunate. The person the universe plopped in front of me to help is smart, capable, and hard-working. But helping her is still going to take more patience, empathy and grace than I've ever previously possessed.
But that's why she called on my birthday. Because God was giving me the chance to grow. The chance to be the kind of person I was always meant to be. Mabel Brown is a child of God. So am I, and so are you. And we're all destined to play a magnificent role in something larger than ourselves. Our souls are dying to create more meaning in our lives.
I just hope we don't wait for another hurricane before we start doing it.