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Volunteer Gabrielle Seibel Tells Her Story

Hurricane Katrina is memorable for a lot of people and typically not in a very good way. For me, it marks the beginning of a real change in my life and the lives of my entire family.

Our family lives far away from the devastation of Katrina. We did not lose our house, or our loved ones, or our jobs, or anything meaningful as a result of the hurricane. But we changed the way we live because of those losses.

Watching the news and devastation from Katrina and seeing the lack of response from our country was a horrible experience for our family. I remember one night in particular, our family sat around the kitchen table discussing how distraught we were that nobody seemed to be doing enough to help. Then we had a moment of realization? WE aren?t doing anything either. We?re sitting around talking about how bad things are, but not DOING anything. For anything meaningful to happen, people need to get involved. As a family we talked about how we could get involved, what skills and resources we had, and what could possibly be the most useful way to help. We decided that as a nurse practitioner, I had skills that could be utilized most easily. We identified Project HOPE as a strong and reliable volunteer organization, and I applied to help in the Katrina relief efforts.

I arrived in Biloxi, Mississippi and was immediately struck by the degree of devastation that still persisted months after the hurricane hit. Boats were sitting up in tree tops, a piano was in the middle of a field, and staircases that once led to houses now stood alone leading nowhere. The trees where all a sickly grey color and leaning off center. A cemetery had coffins and graves spewn across the graveyard. A walk along the Gulf beach was littered with random things - .a restaurant sink, a saw, several chairs. Week after week I looked at this scene - there was nowhere to rest my eyes. Nothing was "normal". The people living here had to look at this every day - I was just here for several weeks.

I worked with my volunteer group in a local clinic seeing patients, as many health care providers had left the area. Nursing assistants who remained in the area brought their children to work each day because the children were still too afraid to be without their parents. Working in pediatrics, children coming in with post-traumatic stress symptoms was the norm rather than the exception. Children were starting to get sick from the mold that was overtaking their homes following the water damage.

As a group, ProjectHOPE worked together with Hands On USA sharing tents, sleeping space, eating space and food. We showered outside in make-shift showers, and slept in tents or on an auditorium floor. Project HOPE volunteers would go off each day providing medical care and trying to revitalize our partner clinics, while Hands On USA would rebuild houses.

On our days off, we would help Hands On USA with demolition, de-molding, or construction, as well as give tetanus shots and care for their injuries on the job in the evenings. Working side by side with so many people from all walks of life who were giving up their lives for a short time to pull together to help this community was hugely inspirational. There are people in the USA who are working hard and selflessly to make things better for others. LOTS of people. I didn't take a day off for weeks - and on the day I finally did, I went out and ran for three hours trying to decompress from the stress of it all. Still I realized this was all only temporary for me, but long term for those who lived there.

The work Project HOPE did after Katrina was phenomenal. We provided needed health care, relieved local workers who needed to grieve or be with their families, rebuilt clinic infrastructures, and showed solidarity to our country. We partnered with local agencies and other volunteer groups to make sure necessary work was getting done. For me personally, it also marked the beginning of a stronger commitment to volunteer work. There is a phenomenal amount of work that needs to be done in our world, and it simply can't be - and shouldn't be - done only by those getting a paycheck for their efforts.

Since Hurricane Katrina, Gabrielle has participated in three additional volunteer missions with Project HOPE using her nurse practitioner skills in Liberia, Ghana and Indonesia.