Have you ever been on the verge of having a dream fulfilled? You can see it, feel it in your bones and taste it. It is right before your eyes, and you are waiting with great anticipation. You know it will be wonderful — one of those times in your life that you will look back on with such fond memories.
As March arrives, that is exactly how I am feeling. As a basketball fan, I normally associate this time of year with March Madness. What also comes to mind when I think of March is spring break, which means vacation time. This year, however, neither of those is the reason for my anticipated joy. Instead, I’m excited because this is the month we will all come together in New Orleans, one of my favorite cities in the world, for the American Counseling Association Annual Conference & Exposition. This is the month we will speak as one voice and be in one place celebrating what it means to be a professional counselor. We will also remember the significance of what has transpired in this city throughout the past six years, from Hurricane Katrina to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This will be a time for us to personally thank all of the wonderful counselors who have volunteered to sacrifice their time and efforts to rebuild this great city.
Reflecting back to August 2005 and Hurricane Katrina, this nation experienced the costliest natural disaster in its history. More than 1,800 people lost their lives as the result of the hurricane and subsequent flooding. As I sat and watched what was transpiring in New Orleans on television, I recalled my many experiences as a child in Mobile, Ala., where I prepared for hurricanes with my grandmother and then waited for the storms to hit land. My most vivid memory was of Hurricane Camille in 1969. As I sat there listening to the wind and falling trees, my grandmother kept saying to me over and over again, “Be still child,” as if this would protect me from the unseen power making its presence felt all around me. Still, the helplessness and fear I felt on that day were nothing compared with the horror of what was happening in New Orleans in late August 2005.
Nor did it come anywhere near the horrors of the aftermath of Katrina as we received thousands of hurricane evacuees in San Antonio. I so clearly remember an older gentleman saying to me, “I need to find my wife. They took her from me. Please help me.” I had been working for many hours and was totally exhausted. Seeing the look of total desperation on his face, I just wanted to break down and cry. Then his daughter approached, informing me that her two brothers had died in the storm and her father was on the verge of total panic. Please help. Acquiring energy from some unseen force, I left what I had been doing to go in search of the man’s wife.
You see, there was so much confusion at KellyUSA, which served as one of the main evacuation sites. We had never dealt with something like this before, and we were so unprepared. I was finally able to find the man’s wife in our medical unit, where she had been taken for observation. When I went back to tell him, he held my hands and wouldn’t let go. As I looked into his eyes, I broke into tears. Reflecting on that moment, I must say I am crying again now as I write this. Please know these are tears of sadness but also tears of joy and thankfulness. As I looked around me at that time, I saw hundreds of volunteers giving so much of themselves for their fellow brothers and sisters. Finding a spot on the floor where I eventually crumpled, I witnessed the amazing spirit of all those who sacrificed days and days of their lives to help others. I also learned a new term: compassion fatigue. I could see and feel the fatigue all around me, but at that time, I did not know what it was. Now, I do.
Many of you have your own personal stories to tell or know of someone who gave of themselves during that horrific time. I want you to come to New Orleans so that I can personally thank you. I also lived in New Orleans for a while, and this is like going home for me. Join me there in formally thanking all the wonderful volunteers. And on a personal note, join me in the fulfillment of one of my dreams.