Idea takes off like a hurricane

Independence resident Kristin Howard uses the internet to help Katrina victims.



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Janet Berg (left) and Kristin Howard of Independence are using the internet to help Katrina victims.

Idea takes off like a hurricane

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INDEPENDENCE -- Like many across the country who watched the drama unfold in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita last month, Kristin Howard of Independence felt compelled to become a part of the relief effort.

"I wanted to go down there, to be hands-on," Howard said. Of course, as a mother of two who operates her own bookkeeping business, flying down to the Gulf Coast was easier said than done.

So Howard decided she would find and "adopt" one family, by sending a care package.

She had no idea how her idea would take off. A combination of internet research and phone calls to shelters in Louisiana, has turned the modest proposal into a relief activity that has people from across and even outside the country assisting evacuees.

Howard, along with her sister, Janet Berg of Newport, started a web site called www.hurricaneadoption.com.

The site connects people interested in sending packages and personal letters of sympathy with families from dozens of shelters in Louisiana.

Since starting the venture at the beginning of September, Howard says more than 700 families have been sponsored.

"A lot of people out there want to help, but can't physically go to New Orleans," Howard said.

"Donating cash to something like Red Cross is fine.

"This," she continued, "is a way to do something more personal."

Howard said the adopt-a-family effort isn't a nonprofit organization and no money is exchanging hands. All she is doing is connecting families and would-be-sponsors. Care packages go directly from the sender to the shelter.

"We don't collect anything," Howard said. "We just do the footwork of finding the families."

For about a month, Howard has been contacting sites housing evacuees in Lousiana, asking directors if they'd be interested in supplying information on their charges to facilitate personal care packages.

A person adopting a family goes on the web site and notifies Howard of their wish to become a sponsor. They then receive information about their recipients and where to send the package.

It's very ordered. When all of the families in one shelter receive a gift, Howard starts the process at a new shelter.

The sisters said people send items ranging from calling cards and stationary to stuffed animals. The intent is to make an adopted family's stay in the shelters more comfortable, Berg said.

"Even though the hurricanes are over and done with, these people are still living in shelters," she said. "You're surrounded by strangers, you have kids crying ... this is just to brighten their day for a little while."

Howard said her original idea of sending a gift to a family grew after she contacted a shelter in Houma, La.

The director was asked if she could supply packages to 25 families," Howard said.

"I told her I couldn't, but that I was sure I could find somebody who could."

Howard went on a hurricane-relief related message board and asked users if anybody would be interested in adopting a family. More than 100 people responded.

Howard sometimes spends seven hours a day on the computer and on the phone, fielding adoption requests. She has coordinated her efforts with about 16 different shelters.

One of them is the First Baptist Church in Rayville, northwest of New Orleans. The church has been home to as many as 120 people evacuated during Hurricane Katrina, said Deanna Corbett, a youth minister.

At least one extended family of 17 has been evacuated twice -- after Katrina and again from a shelter in Beaumont, Texas after Hurricane Rita.

Corbett said she was touched when Howard called asking about the possibility of adopting families.

"It's encouraging to us, because we've been inundated ... we're on our feet here 16 hours a day," she said.

"But it's more encouraging to (the families), just because they know people care about them and they're not alone," she aded. "They realize that what's happened to them affects everybody in the nation ... we're amazed at seeing the outpouring of concern."

With her bookkeeping business starting to get busy, Howard says she'll probably stop looking for new shelters, though she still has several to work on. She still has about 800 people between two shelters that need sponsors.

After that, Howard said, she's considering applying her strategy to a new cause: getting people to sponsor classrooms in some of the reopened Louisiana schools.

For more information: www.hurricaneadoption.com.



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