WEST VALLEY CITY — His name is Antonio and he's on his lunch break. He's carrying two new sleeping bags, one under each arm, which he drops on the donation table.
Asked as he turns to leave where he got the bags and how much they cost, he says in broken English, "I went to Kmart and bought them for $15."
Asked why he wants to donate them to victims of Hurricane Katrina, he shrugs and replies, "I've been in trouble before, and I feel good when people help me, too."
Welcome to the good side of a bad thing. This portion of Katrina Helping Hand is at an LDS wardhouse on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley, where the gymnasium couldn't hold a basketball game if it wanted to. From backboard to backboard, the place is stacked full of everything from shoes and coats to diapers and bottled water. One wall is completely covered with tortilla chips, another with cans of food. There are toys and cooking implements and packs of toilet paper and 400 boxes of breakfast cereal.
In the middle, at a plastic table where Hugo Ibarra keeps track of it all, there is $4,000 in monetary contributions — enough to truck all the goods to the New Orleans area by the weekend.
The $4,000 is very spendable, every penny of it. It's all in hard, cold American cash. Not a check or credit card in the batch.
Claudia Redd and Enrique Corona survey this hurricane of material largesse that has descended on the church house with a mixture of awe and satisfaction. Claudia and Enrique are on-air talent at Radio Unica Utah (1640 on the AM dial), and it was their rallying of the Latino population that started the giving storm.
"Enrique had the idea," says Claudia, extending credit where it is due. "I have to say, I had my doubts when he started talking about helping out. But he had all the excitement that we could do something."
So this past Tuesday morning Enrique and Claudia started asking listeners on the Spanish-speaking station to bring their contributions — whatever they thought might help the hurricane victims — to the church.
By Tuesday night, the gym was getting crowded. By Wednesday, you could barely see the floor. And on Thursday, stuff still kept coming.
"This is my amazement," says Claudia as she looks around at 10,000 diapers, 1,850 pairs of shoes, 2,500 cans of food and 12,500 bottles of water (Hugo keeps good records) that have been contributed entirely by listeners of Latino radio.
Some of the donations are bulk offerings from businesses — the 400 boxes of cereal, for instance, courtesy of Chico's Auto Sales — but most are like the sleeping bags from Antonio, individual offerings from individual people.
The bottles of water in the corner reflect this. A case of Sam's Club sits next to a case of Kroger's that sits next to a case of Aquafina. Each case was carried in separately.
The cash has come in that way as well. "Some children brought just one dollar," says Claudia, "and one guy came in and gave $250. He looked sloppy and then he pulled out the money. He said America is a great country and it's helped him and he wanted to help someone else."
About the same thing Antonio said.
Antonio, by the way, does not have time to chat. After dropping off the sleeping bags — which he bought on his lunch hour — he needs to get back pronto to his construction job.
At $13 an hour, he'll have them paid off in less than two hours.
"Bye, bye, muchas gracias," the volunteers call out as he leaves.
"De nada," says Antonio.
Helping is a universal language.
Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and faxes to 801-237-2527.