Building Bridges

David and Janet Chittum
David and Janet Chittum, a retired couple from Fairmont, W.Va, work the Red Cross “Canteen on Wheels.” The Chittums are no strangers to hurricane relief, having spent 15 days in Florida as Red Cross volunteers in the wake of Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Photo by Lingbing Hang

Cindy Moore watched people begging for help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and felt she had to help.

The Clarington, Ohio, mother of three saw her opportunity when West Virginia opened its doors to more than 300 evacuees.

Volunteering at Camp Dawson changed Moore’s life.

While answering phones in the Red Cross office, she worked with people from different places and, for the first time, with people of a different race.

The 28-year-old hopes that her decision to volunteer also will help her children.

“Too many of today’s children don’t know how to be humanitarian, and we need to lead by example,” Moore said.

Moore served as a bridge between the evacuees and their families on the outside.

When someone called with a message for a Hurricane Katrina evacuee, she would deliver that message.

“I’m glad to be here,” Moore said. “I’m going to cry when I leave, or they leave me.”

Her mother, Penny Howard, came, too, and worked the phones.

Two of her sisters and their grandmother also volunteered, but had to leave when their grandmother fell ill.

“My first night (at Camp Dawson) I worked directly with the clients and didn’t get much sleep,” said Howard. “Some of them were too proud to ask for help.”

She recounted a conversation she had with an evacuee who had spent six days in the Superdome in New Orleans.

“Promise me you’ll ask for what you need,” Howard told him.

“Only if you do something for me,” he said.

“What’s that?” Howard asked.

“Get some sleep because we need you,” he said.

Because Howard’s experience at Camp Dawson was positive, she was surprised by the reaction of some people from the neighboring community of Kingwood when State Police released statistics showing 45 percent of evacuees at Camp Dawson had criminal records.

Before those numbers became public, an evacuee made the news when he was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl at the camp. Later, he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge.

Despite that information, Howard said that she was never afraid or nervous.

“If I’m not afraid, then what are these people scared of?” she asked.

Although some people may have feared their temporary neighbors, many residents from the Kingwood area donated food and clothing by the carload from the first day the shelter was set up through the last, showing their support for the evacuees.

People traveled many miles to bring donations and offer help. Moore and Howard traveled 130 miles to reach the camp.

David and Janet Chittum drove only about 15 miles from their vacation spot on Big Bear Lake to work in the “canteen on wheels.”

Janet smiled as she poured a cup of coffee for a Hurricane Katrina evacuee at Camp Dawson.

“Cream or sugar?” she asked.

She and her husband, David, both retirees from Fairmont, spent their days serving coffee and offering people cookies, crackers and granola bars that were donated.

“The Lord put you here for a reason other than work,” said David, while handing out snacks from the back of the truck.

Before retirement, the Chittums were emergency medical technicians.

Now they are Red Cross volunteers who aren’t new to hurricane relief.

They spent 15 days in Florida volunteering after Hurricane Ivan hit in 2004.
“With Ivan, we slept on the floor for 11 days and didn’t bathe for three,” David said.

“It was very stressful, but there’s not much stress here,” Janet added.

Each day when their shift ended at Camp Dawson, they retreated to their place on the lake for a good night’s sleep.