Volunteering for Louisiana


We recently got a chance to talk to Jennifer Tidwell, who is on the ground volunteering in Louisiana where floods have killed 13 people and destroyed about 60,000 homes. For Jennifer, (who, in addition to her public service, is also operating as a single mother to son Connor, 8) her work in Louisiana is not a one-time thing. She and husband, Warren, who is currently serving a year in Ghana with Foundation Beyond Belief’s Humanist Action: Ghana, have dedicated their lives to helping others in need. Not for an eternal reward, but because as Jennifer says, “ I see it as my place to be the best example of what a secular humanist can be; compassionate towards fellow human beings and to serve others when needed.” Read on to find out what it’s like right now in Louisiana, how Jennifer got started doing service work, and how you can help those in need.

We are still running our Humanist Disaster Recovery Drive if you are able and interested in donating. We are planning a second Humanist Disaster Recovery Team deployment in an area to be determined. Both Louisiana and Texas have been hit hard by flooding in 2016 and are candidates for team deployment. You can donate to the deployment here.To date, we have raised over $8,000 thanks to the generosity of humanists like you. If you’d like to read more about All Hands Volunteers, the beneficiary we have chosen for our drive, you can read more on our news feed here.

What are you and your team doing to help the people affected by the flooding in Louisiana?

We are using social media to get the word about the flooding in Louisiana and use these connections to organize supply relief drive. We contacted local representatives in the Baton Rouge area to get information on places that were collecting and distributing needed supplies (food, toiletries, cleaning supplies, etc.) for flood victims. Once we learned what was needed, we posted the information and organized drop sites where people could drop off the goods. We used people's homes, the hospital, the local ARC, the university, and so on.  We also had to make sure we were able to transport the items to Louisiana. This took a team of drivers and vehicles. One van was donated by Enterprise Rent-A-Car and several of the drivers on Saturday were Enterprise drivers. All six vehicles that left Saturday morning were full!

How did you start doing this type of work? Is this the first time you're doing this type of work?

I grew up in south Florida where hurricanes were a given every summer, and I watched my parents take leadership and service roles often.  As an officer, my dad would be away from our home during every storm to assist the public, organize units, and evacuate areas of the city.   My mom was at home with my siblings and I and several other police officer's families and wives, since our house was one of the closest to the police station. She led the way, keeping everyone calm and safe.  I remember Hurricane Andrew.  It. Was. Awful.  I had just turned 13 and what I saw changed who I am.  The degree of the suffering was gut-wrenching.  The only way I've learned to handle and process those feelings is by Doing Something.

Since Hurricane Andrew, the power of the weather has fascinated to me.  It was one of the first things that my husband, Warren, and I bonded over – our obsession with weather – later it was our shared humanist beliefs and opinions regarding religion. He proposed to me on a beach in my hometown of Hollywood, FL just as the first squall lines from Hurricane Charlie were making their way on shore.  We were planning our wedding when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. It was like time stopped and something in the universe had been changed forever. There was an eerie energy and an uneasy sadness in the world.

I remember a wine glass shattering in our kitchen in the middle of the night, nothing around it, no reason. Something changed in Warren and me too – our innocence about the state of our world was taken from us as we watched people drown, starve and die from neglect in our own country.  We nearly had to cancel our wedding due the destruction of Hurricane Rita.  The hall that housed our reception donned the infamous blue trap of storm roof damage.

Warren and I decided that we had to do something after Katrina.  He had read about the Forgotten Town of Pearlington, MS.  He was struck by the stories of the town's people and their needs.  Most of the media attention, supplies and volunteers were allocated to the New Orleans area, leaving the surrounding area with little assistance.  We partnered up with a couple organizations and began work on procuring materials, arranging transport and coordinator efforts; often using a blog page started by a Canadian Psychologist, Jon White, AKA Canada John.  During this first endeavor, we made some mistakes and we learned as a result.

Returning home we needed something to positive to focus on and decided to start a family.  Connor was born on February 29, 2008, with a hurricane cowlick on his forehead.  He's eight today and still has his hurricane. Warren started a Facebook page the day of the 2011 tornado outbreak in our home state of Alabama.  We planned to organize drop sites, gather supplies, and bring a small group of the Auburn family to help our rivals in Tuscaloosa. The Facebook page went viral.  We orchestrated the use of a church as a distribution center, gathered supplies, and helped distribute the items to the affected areas.  We also started focusing on the rural areas.  A similar situation was happening: like New Orleans, Tuscaloosa was receiving most of the aid and the surrounding communities were being left out.  Warren went to work getting supplies and help with these communities. I, myself, work with special needs infants, toddlers, and adults.  Service to others is what we do.

What inspired you to take this on while your husband is away in Ghana?  

I have many reasons, mainly I'm a humanist. If you can do something to help others, you should.  I can, I have, and I will. I have an amazing network here: an army of wonderful family, friends, and coworkers.  I knew if I decided to take this on, I would have plenty of support. Additionally, my cousin, Don, is an officer with the Baton Rouge police department. It was his unit that was fired on several weeks ago.  He has very recently planned the funerals for and buried three friends. Don's home in Walker, LA was flooded nearly to the roof.  My family was able to make it out of the house safely and used boats to save several of their neighbors, including a wheelchair-bound woman and very young children.  They walked the boats through the waters filled with sewage, gasoline, chemicals and everything else you can think of.  

For people who are nearby and want to help, what can they do? Who do they contact and what could they collect/bring? In what other ways can people support this work?

The issues in the affected areas are currently in a shift between the initial relief needs (shelter, food, safety, cleanliness) to the recovery needs (building supplies, skilled labor).  Look to social media, Google the affected areas, see what projects you can find and use the skills you have.  Use what you have: if you’re a builder, volunteer to help a project with the rebuilding of a home:  if you’re a teacher, see if you can locate a school in need of specific supplies.  Do something that is meaningful to you.  For me, it's anything having to do with the ARC, special needs, rural areas, or my family.  If you have your hands full and want to donate money, find an organization that you trust and give to it.  

What are the most compelling stories you've heard so far about the flooding?

I, personally, really loved the note card and $100 dollar bill I received anonymously from a person in my neighborhood.  She had lost everything to a house fire years ago and wanted to bring hope to another person going through what she had years before.  My husband, Warren, has also lost everything to a house fire and I believe that's why it's so important for him to help others.  Other stepped up to help him and his family.The numbers being published regarding people who have lost their homes, lives, livelihoods, etc. to the flooding is mind-boggling.  I'm most troubled by the lack of an initial media response, the focus on Baton Rouge only, and the ignorance.  I've heard so many people ask why 'these' people didn't learn their lesson and after Hurricane Katrina, not even knowing that this is not the same location.  This is a 100 year or more flooding event.  This is not typical.  'These' people are not stupid. The best stories are the ones of neighbors helping neighbors: showing up with boats to rescue people, fetching animals out of the high waters, helping gut out a house and move debris, the people taking time out of their day to donate supplies and those transporting those goods, the people helping the people.  

What else do you want people to know about your work, your situation, etc.?

During these endeavors, I often work with churches because they are very organized and do humanist work. I will work alongside anyone to help a fellow human being. All I ask for is that others respect my lack of beliefs because I will respect yours. We don't have to have the same beliefs to get the work done, we just need to work together. A coworker only learned today that I consider myself an atheist, though I told him I prefer secular humanist. It bothered him. He said, "but you're such a nice person, how can that be?" I see it as my place to be the best example of what a secular humanist can be: compassionate towards fellow human beings and to serve others when needed.  So many people believe that our group (secular humanists) is selfish and/or self-serving. We are good people. We help others. We are respectful. We want respect and I want to help us earn it.

Photo credit: All photos courtesy of Jennifer Tidwell. Top photo (l-r), Jennifer's cousin, Don; her mom, Pam Lunney, who was one of the drivers and housed a drop site; Jennifer; and Jennifer's cousin's daughter "Breezy."