Chabad Bring Joy to Hurricane Victims - Sept. 05

Even as the sky grew darker and the rain fell harder, the children gathered in the outdoor pavilion smiled brightly. They were singing and dancing, surrounded b y people who cared for them. These were moments of genuine laughter and joy — the kind of moments that have been very rare recently for people from Louisiana.

In between raindrops, these displaced children and families were able to enjoy a free carnival that Chabad sponsored at the KellyUSA airbase and business park in S. Antonio — which is where they have been sheltered since Hurricane Katrina took their homes. The event on September 11 featured a funhouse, carousel, slide, and a variety of spinning rides and inflated “moon walk” bounces. Clowns made balloon hats and performed magic tricks. An ice cream truck dispensed free frozen treats to the children, and the smell of popcorn filled the air.

Chabad representatives handed out T-shirts to the visitors and brought them letters of comfort written by California schoolchildren. The rabbis and volunteers had a chance to play with the kids, join them on the rides, and talk to them about their lives both before and after the hurricane.

“Despite the rain, we really lifted these children’s spirits and let a lot of people know that we care about them,” said Rabbi Chaim Block, the head of Chabad of South Texas who is now serving as the organization’s relief coordinator in that area. After spending time on the ground, Rabbi Block realized that other relief organizations were meeting many of the refugee’s basic needs, but these people needed something to “being smiles back to their faces.”

The resulting carnival was organized and sponsored by Chabad of South Texas and West Coast Chabad-Lubavitch, and it received the strong support of a humanitarian coalition including the Red Cross, VOAD (Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster), the S. Antonio Jewish Community, and other religious organizations.

Sam Glaser, a Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter who will appear on the upcoming Chabad Telethon, provided live entertainment for the carnival and offered musical accompaniment for some spontaneous karaoke. Glaser also had a chance to perform an original piece about survival and hope in the face of adversity called, “When the Levee Breaks” — and the children joined him in singing the refrain.

“I could see in their faces that this event was a welcome diversion, and some of the older folks seemed deeply touched on a spiritual level,” said Theo Waddell, a volunteer at the event. “It will make a difference to the kids as they grow up knowing that somebody cared enough to do something like this for them.”

A moment of silence was observed during the afternoon to honor those who lost their lives in Hurricane Katrina as well as those who died in the September 11 terrorist attacks four years ago.

While visiting KellyUSA, the rabbis also had the opportunity to go inside the shelters to visit with the storm survivors. They had a chance to make personal contact with several hundred of the 3,500 refugees who are now living in this “initial reception area,” and did everything they could to provide comfort and hope.

The trip inside the shelters provided a firsthand glimpse of the challenging circumstances the survivors now face. There was a strong presence of relief workers, volunteers, and security personnel who are now tending to the evacuees’ needs. But there were still telltale signs of the chaos many survivors have endured — and the daunting uncertainties ahead. The walls were papered with flyers trying to locate missing children, flyers urging rape victims to get counseling, and flyers announcing new mealtimes and new cafeteria locations.

The large, open rooms used for sleeping quarters have no dividers or other means to provide privacy between the thousands of beds. Each bed has a small storage area underneath for stowing what few personal belongings the evacuees call their own. Lines of people were waiting outside the distribution areas for new clothing and toiletries.

Public rooms have been set up with telephones and Internet-connected computers — and there are areas with computers that are specifically designated to aid in the search for missing loved ones. Other rooms serve as pharmacies, clinics, post offices, counseling centers and preschools. Unfortunately, there was no intercom system to relay information to the residents, and there was evidence of bureaucratic miscommunication during the visit.

But the rabbis saw some strongly encouraging signs inside the shelter. “The inner strength of many of these people is just amazing. I was incredibly impressed by the resilience there, especially the resilience of the children,” said Rabbi Levi Cunin of Chabad of Malibu. “One of the kids told me, ‘We’re still young and we have hope. We believe in G‑d and believe something good will come out of this.’ So I think that the children will be an inspiration to their parents.”

Chabad has helped tend to the children in this shelter by providing the supplies for their preschool program that is serving as a model for those in other shelters. The immediate focus of this day, however, was to offer them some joy and laughter during the carnival. The event allowed these young survivors a few moments of relief from suffering and anxiety.

“There’s an incredible ripple effect that comes from something like this,” said Chabad’s Rabbi Mordechai Nemtzov, who recently finished delivering vital antibiotics and insulin to other refugees in Lafayette and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “Whenever you bring such happiness to someone, they go and spread it to others.”

Even more people were able share in this experience on the carnival’s second day; the owner of Alamo Attractions, which provided the rides, was so moved by the spirit of the event on September 11 that he offered to return again for free. And on September 12, the rain had been replaced by sunshine.