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Volunteers rally to help families

Mike Pavia, left, and other volunteers from Bluffdale-area LDS wards carry bottled water to give to evacuees who are staying at Camp Williams.
Mike Pavia, left, and other volunteers from Bluffdale-area LDS wards carry bottled water to give to evacuees who are staying at Camp Williams.
Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News

Pamela Atkinson does not think she could have slept more than about eight hours in the past three days.

Evacuees who have recounted tales of horror from the Superdome in New Orleans, wrenching scenes of parting from family members and the excruciating choices they made in the days after Hurricane Katrina have kept Atkinson awake at night.

Atkinson, a longtime community advocate who has organized Utah's relief effort through the governor's office, is one of the hundreds of volunteers from the Wasatch Front who has donated days to helping the 576 evacuees from New Orleans. The emotional toll of working with the evacuees has been high.

"I probably shed more tears over these evacuees working with them than I've done in a long time," Atkinson said.

Camp Williams is a temporary home for the evacuees, who have been assisted by a cadre of volunteers who have spent hours doing medical checks, cleaning cafeteria tables, entertaining children and sorting donations. National Guard soldiers who ordinarily use the camp for training have been maintaining the buildings and other needs, such as plumbing and repairs, but the volunteers operate the shelter.

"I think the evacuees coming in feel a lot more comfortable with civilians there," said Lt. Col. David Thomas, public information officer for the Utah National Guard. Volunteers handed out "a lot of hugs, (and) a lot of things like that might be a lot more difficult for the military to accomplish — we're not as friendly looking as the civilian volunteers are."

Volunteers greeted the planes of evacuees over the weekend, staffed medical outposts, collected donations, manned phone hotlines and played with bored children. Many of them said they simply wanted the evacuees to feel welcome in Utah.

"It's a humbling experience," said a volunteer named Amy, who did not want to give her last name. "They're trying to make the best of this situation. I can't even imagine what they're going through or what they're thinking."

State employees, National Guard soldiers, church groups, Red Cross and United Way volunteers primarily staffed Camp Williams on Monday. The Red Cross also trained approximately 700 additional volunteers Monday at one-hour sessions in a downtown hotel. Those volunteers, in addition to the 200 or so who trained Sunday, will staff shifts at Camp Williams through the next week. Volunteers who have trained with the Red Cross need to be patient for opportunities to help, said Cecelia Walker, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross. "As the need arises, we will start calling them in to help," Walker said.

Alice Sattiewhite and Dennis Carpenter, friends who met at New Zion Baptist Church in Ogden and stood in line Monday for a session, hoped evacuees would feel at home in Salt Lake City, despite the differences between Louisiana and Utah.

"I'm glad they were able to come here," said Carpenter, who suggested that the evacuees get involved with a church group to help them adjust to displacement.

The temporary certification sessions instructed people how to sensitively speak with evacuees, distribute food and protect the evacuees from further stress. Volunteers in high spirits waited in line for several hours to get seats in the sessions; most of the overwhelmingly white, middle-age, female crowd passed the time by chatting amiably with strangers.

Kaye Lynn Wright, a Magna resident, chose to donate time rather than money because she felt antsy and wanted to help in the best way her pocketbook would allow.

"It broke my heart to see families separated and all the babies, all the children without food," Wright said. "This isn't a closure but a start, to feel like things are taken care of."

Patty Headley persuaded her mother to give her a ride to the Sheraton downtown for the training sessions.

"These people don't know anything about Utah, and I grew up in Utah," Headley said. "They're just coming into another planet. I'd like to show them our planet."

Contributing: Leigh Dethman.