[Nameplate] Fair ~ 77°F  
High: 88°F ~ Low: 73°F
Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016

Just about the next best place to home

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Ralph Helton of Gulfport, Miss., holds up a picture of his children as he stands with his wife, Jill. The couple are staying at the Red Cross disaster relief shelter near Benton.
BENTON -- It's definitely not home, but the disaster relief center in Benton is possibly the next best thing for displaced persons of Hurricane Katrina.

Since the shelter opened by the American Red Cross at the Charleston Baptist Association campgrounds Sept. 1, hundreds of people from the area have volunteered their time or donated items or money to help survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

"I'm proud of the American people," said Saundra Blankenship of the Red Cross. "We all have to survive together and help each other out."

Currently about 25 people are utilizing the Red Cross resources.

"It's been overwhelming," said shelter resident Belinda Chatman. "I don't think my own family or neighborhood would do what everyone here has done."

Children and their parents from Boulte, La., are staying and playing at the shelter.
Chatman even commended the children of volunteers. "The children have shown just as much generosity," she observed.

Chatman and her family of Boutte, La., which is about 20 miles west of New Orleans, evacuated their home a day before Hurricane Katrina hit. They stayed at a hotel in Cape Girardeau until the shelter opened.

"We are the family this shelter was opened for," smiled Chatman.

Chatman and her husband, Darwin Chatman Sr., and their three children, D.J., 13, Hunter, 6, and Rileigh, 3, and Chatman's parents fled Louisiana together. "At this point, we're undecided about whether we're going to go back or stay. My parents left Wednesday to meet with FEMA, and that was hard," Chatman said.

The Chatmans still don't know the extent of the damage to their home, although they do know it is still standing. Chatman sent a key with her mother to check out her house.

"We should know in a couple of days what it's like," Chatman said.

Meanwhile Chatman's husband is trying to obtain his commercial driver's license.

Chatman's husband worked at a port in New Orleans and doesn't have a job to return to, and Chatman worked as a library technical assistant at an elementary school, which only reopened last week.

Affectionately known as the "dorm mother" around camp, 33-year-old Chatman helps around the camp and is responsible for showing newcomers around the shelter when they first arrive.

"And that makes me feel good, helping a new person," she said.

Chatman said it wasn't until 12 days after the hurricane they found out their last family member was OK.

Her children have adjusted well, Chatman said. Hunter and D.J. attend Kelly Schools in Benton. And "Princess Rileigh" as she's known to the volunteers stays with Chatman during the day.

"We've had a lot of 'firsts' since being here," Chatman said.

Prior to coming to Missouri, Chatman and her family had never seen a pig before. A couple of weeks ago at the Benton Neighbor Days, her children participated in the greased pig contest, and one of the children won.

Every day retired teacher Tom Metheny and his wife drive from their home in Marble Hill to volunteer at the campgrounds.

"These people are not deadbeats," Metheny said. "They have lost everything and appreciate everything that's being done to help them."

Blankenship agreed.

"They're ready to go make a living and go to school and get back out in the community," Blankenship said.

And the residents help out just as much as the volunteers, whether working in security or food preparation, sorting donations, or assisting other residents, Blankenship pointed out.

To make room for a resource area complete with computer, one of the shelter's residents, who is an electrician, installed a new electrical outlet in the commons area.

"We are here as long as they need us," Blankenship said about Red Cross shelter.

In addition to providing food and shelter, the Red Cross site also has available on the campgrounds free medical care, Federal Emergency Management Agency information, Internet access and other resources.

Three 18-wheelers full of donated items sit on the campgrounds along with two portable sheds full of supplies. The chapel next to the camp's dining hall is also full and divided into categories -- from toiletries to clothes to canned goods and food supplies.

In the dining hall, three flat screen TVs (there were none before) were donated for residents as well as furniture. Several agencies have donated various services to the shelter also, Blankenship said.

A bulletin board also hangs in the dining hall with postings of jobs, housing availability and local contacts such as doctors or transportation.

"This is equipped to help them get back on their feet and be a vital part in the community," Blankenship said.

Betty Sue Rapien of Benton, kitchen manager, decided to volunteer a couple of weeks ago.

"Any minute this floor could start rumbling and it could be us," said Rapien, who worked in the restaurant business for over 30 years.

And Rapien said the volunteers have fallen in love with the residents. "They tell us we're the heroes, but they're the real heroes," Rapien said.

The feeling is mutual.

Jill and Ralph Helton of Gulf Port, Miss., also left before the Katrina swept through the Gulf Coast. Three of Ralph Helton's children are still missing, and he has yet to hear from them.

If anything, it has been the shelter that has given the Heltons hope to go on. Helton said: "They have shown us that faith and humanity still exist."

Currently plastic tubs for storage are needed at the shelter. To volunteer or find out which items are needed, call the shelter at (573) 545-9759.