CAMP MEETING: Sarah Wacaster speaks to evacuees.
If you are a man, unless you’re traveling with a female partner or a child, the reality two weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit seems to be that your options are more limited than the average evacuee’s.
Of about 270 Arkansas listings Sept. 12 on the web site www.hurricanehousing.org — people offering to house evacuees in spare bedrooms, campers, vacant apartments, or even just on the living room couch — 113 specified a preferred type of evacuee, such as married couple with children, single woman, or single mother with kids, that excluded single men; only 27 specified that single men were welcome, and the rest didn’t give a preference. Some churches that have converted their gyms to shelters have also limited their services to families. Without debating the causes or the rightness of it, if those who are helping with relief efforts are inclined to be suspicious, single men are their first targets.
So word that Camp Aldersgate, a United Methodist facility near Kanis and Shackleford roads best known for its programs for children with disabilities, suddenly found itself home to more than five dozen single-male evacuees couldn’t help but prick the ears a bit.
“When we originally started, we were planning to take a few families with kids with special needs,” said Sarah Wacaster, the camp’s executive director. Aldersgate employees had gathered supplies and planned activities with that expectation.
“But when they got off the bus” — from Fort Chaffee, at 3 a.m. the Sunday after the hurricane hit — “we realized we had men.”
Treating them as such seems to be all the security precautions the Aldersgate staff has needed. Most camps that took in evacuees got security help as part of the deal — in Camp Aldersgate’s case, two sheriff’s deputies are there around the clock, and paramedics have been volunteering to stay overnight as well.
The vibe at the camp five days after the evacuees arrived was one of calm and trust — no signs full of rules or other obvious limitations.
“These are just sweet men and we’re so glad to have them here,” Wacaster said.
They’d been grouped together at Fort Chaffee, apparently, when evacuees were divided up into single men, single women and families, and stayed grouped together when they left.
Some are actually married, or are fathers, or were living with siblings or other relatives, but got separated in the chaotic days after New Orleans flooded.
“These men really do get left out,” Wacaster said. “They have just as many stories, just as many loved ones — they just happen to be single men at this time.”
After the evacuees arrived, the camp staff quickly shifted their plans, and put a call out for male volunteers to help get the men settled in and just be there for them. In that sense, Aldersgate’s guests have proven to be a blessing in disguise, Wacaster said: “Men don’t typically volunteer, and they have just come out of the woodwork,” she said.
Of the 63 men (and one woman, actually, who was with her boyfriend and brother-in-law) who arrived from Fort Chaffee on Sept. 4, about 18 have already found family or friends to stay with and have left Little Rock. Several are actively looking for jobs here and plan to stay permanently. And the rest, Wacaster said, are just enjoying the chance to relax. Aldersgate’s cabins sleep 24, and donors have provided cell phones and computers along with clothes and Wal-Mart gift cards. There’s plenty of elbow room, and they’ll be welcome guests this Saturday, Sept. 17, at the camp’s annual fish fry.
Aldersgate was the end of a journey that for Melvin Enclarde, a soft-spoken 51-year-old, started five days after the hurricane when he finally left his house — by then surrounded by water, but not yet flooded inside — in a rescuer’s boat. Some family members had already gone, to where Enclarde didn’t know. One brother was still in the house when he left.
“I’m all right, myself,” Enclarde said. “But the rest of my family, I don’t know…”
One man, a minister from New Orleans, said the hospitality he’d received had been second only to what he expects to find in Glory. Another, Anthony Blanchard, a taxicab dispatcher who was in the hospital the day the hurricane hit and wasn’t evacuated for days, seemed wary of being interviewed until he was told the name of newspaper was the Arkansas Times. “I’ll do anything for Arkansas,” he said. The federal government, the first wave of disaster workers in New Orleans? Blanchard’s anger toward them is a sight to behold.
Although the almost 60-year-old camp’s usual guests are children with disabilities or senior adults, staff member Cathy Bacon said its current use isn’t actually a departure from the original mission, which was to provide a place where blacks and whites could have Bible studies together.
“We’re all about meeting the needs of those who aren’t helped anywhere else,” Bacon said. “This is very true to who we are here.”