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In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, San Luis Obispo residents are joining thousands of others from across the country to lend a hand in the American Red Cross relief efforts.

Because of the widespread devastation and anticipated length of the operation, the Red Cross has recruited members of the public to serve as disaster relief volunteers for the first time.

Before embarking on their disaster assignments nationally, volunteers are required to undergo lengthy training and gain insight on local issues.

Heather Payne, a child development senior, recently completed a three-week assignment in Greensburg, La., an experience she described as “incredibly frustrating, but rewarding at the same time.”

“Wednesday after the Hurricane my friend and I were watching the news and talking about how devastating the aftermath of Katrina was,” she said. “We discussed how we should really do something to help out.

“Since we are college students we obviously don’t have a lot of money to contribute, but what we do have is time and energy.”

After a four-hour training video and a number of phone calls to work out logistics, Payne was soon on her way to headquarters: an old Wal-Mart building in Baton Rouge, from where she received her assignment to Greensburg.

Upon arrival, Payne quickly became involved in the social services aspect of running the small civic center.

“Each family would meet with me and we would discuss where they came from, what their immediate needs were, how to get them clothing, in to see the doctor, get their prescriptions filled, get their Social Security checks, FEMA applications, Red Cross Assistance forms, school enrollment, school uniforms- everything you could ever think of,” Payne said.

Shelter life presented a unique breed of problems, with drugs, prostitution and a daunting fear that violence may break out at any time.

Despite the overwhelming difference from home for the San Luis Obispo student, Payne said any initial hesitations were quick to melt away, and she found a second family in the misplaced people of Greensburg.

“It is hard being back in San Luis Obispo, where everything seems fine and dandy, knowing the suffering and obstacles facing a million people in our own country,” she said. “I’ve definitely grown from this experience and my eyes have been opened to a world outside of our safe and well-off community.”

According to the San Luis Obispo County chapter of the Red Cross, the county has sent over 160 volunteers to the disaster area, and donated more than a million dollars.

There is still a demand for volunteers in the coming months, not necessarily for immediate deployment.

In addition to providing direct relief in disaster areas, volunteers are also needed to provide assistance locally at the chapter.

For those interested in volunteering, contact the San Luis Obispo County chapter at 543-0696.

Those affected by the hurricane are also in deed of financial assistance, and the Red Cross is collecting donations to go towards providing food, water, shelter, clothing and counseling. Checks may be made payable to the American Red Cross-Hurricane Katrina and sent to 225 Prado Road, Suite A, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401.

For more information, visit http://www.slo-redcross.org.

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