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Vandersteen Returns from Louisiana
September 20, 2005

A Calvin College counselor back from two weeks of work in Louisiana is happy to be home, but thankful for the experience too.

Dan Vandersteen worked for the American Red Cross at a shelter in Houma, La., located about 50 miles southwest of New Orleans, where over a thousand evacuees from New Orleans were living and waiting to see what the next day would bring.

Vandersteen's task was to provide mental and emotional counseling to those evacuees and to the shelter staff. He worked each day from 10 am to 5 pm and then again from 9 pm to midnight (when the lights went out people needed to talk he says).

He says it was one of the toughest assignments he's ever had, a telling statement considering he's volunteered in the past at Ground Zero in New York (both immediately after 9/11 and at the time of the one-year anniversary), at a flood site in North Dakota and on a hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

"Those sites were all self-contained to a certain extent," says Vandersteen. "In Louisiana the scope of the damage is so widespread, so immense. We are seeing the biggest migration of people in the U.S. since the Civil War. It can feel hopeless, where do you start?"

Also, the Houma shelter housed a number of people who had been in the Superdome in New Orleans.

"Those people," says Vandersteen, "had been traumatized."

Yet, says Vandersteen, a native of St. Catharines, Ont., his days at the shelter were not hopeless.

Instead he found in the people he was working with an overwhelming sense of gratitude.

"They were happy to be alive," he says, "and happy for what they had at the shelter. Over and over again I heard gratitude. That was very affirming."

Vandersteen also witnessed several reunions at the Houma shelter.

"Those were incredibly moving," he says. "In talking with people we often first heard thankfulness, but then heard concern for missing family members. To see reunions happen at the shelter meant a lot."

Vandersteen, who joined Calvin in January 2002 after working as a therapist and counselor at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services for over 20 years, says he was in the first wave Red Cross volunteers and that was a week after the disaster occurred.

"It often was chaos there," he recalls. "I don't want to point a finger but we saw a lot of disorganization. I think the magnitude of the disaster was just overwhelming. There were so many agencies trying to work together and it seemed like it never clicked."

What Vandersteen did see click was a variety of humanitarian missions.

"There were so many people who came to help," he says. "The women from the town (of Houma) would stop by the shelter and pick up laundry and bring it back that night or the next day clean and folded. I met some Franciscan friars from New York who came, as they said, simply to be Jesus for the people there."

Indeed Vandersteen says many of the evacuees leaned on their faith in the midst of their suffering.

"I would listen to them," he says, "and help them in whatever ways I could. And then I would always ask them: what else can we do for you. They often would say they needed to pray."

So Vandersteen set up twice-daily prayer times in the shelter - each morning at 10 am and each afternoon at 3 pm. Most days the quartet of Franciscans, all young men in their early 20s, led those gathering times. Those opportunities for the evacuees, says Vandersteen, were an important part of their healing process.

"People were scared and hurting," he says, "but when you simply listen to them, when you respond to them honestly and sincerely, and give them a chance to have their needs met, people are grateful."

As was the case in New York and Puerto Rico and North Dakota, Vandersteen's time in Louisiana taught him a lot.

"I do the learning," he says, "and whatever I give I get so much more back."