Cristina Connections
Linking Life To Its Promise
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 VOL. 6
 ISSUE 8
After Katrina - Technology Lifelines @ Work
Interview with Nancy Jo Craig - Executive Director of CACRC

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Nancy Jo Craig receiving donated computers
from Kentucky.

The National Cristina Foundation has been partnering with the Capital Area Corporate Recycling Council since September 2005 in an effort to provide donations of computer technology to those impacted by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. We are deeply grateful, not only for CACRC’s profound commitment to their work, but also their professionalism, timeliness, and passion for helping the hundreds of organizations, schools and individuals seeking assistance.  They work tirelessly to ensure that those who have lost everything receive the technology necessary to begin rebuilding their lives.

This refurbished technology is being used to get schools up-and-running; link displaced people with employment, housing, and missing family members; retrain hundreds in skills critical to competing in a new job market.

The National Cristina Foundation is committed to our ongoing effort to direct donations of equipment from throughout the U.S. to CACRC as they continue to refurbish and distribute computers for displaced individuals, schools and nonprofits.

NCF interviewed Nancy Jo Craig in October 2006, to reflect on events of the last year


NC: I got a degree in nonprofit management from Harvard. I grew up with the idea, learned from my parents, that you give back to your community as much as you could and so that’s how I’ve spent my careers. I have always had a drive toward community service and the importance of making a difference.  We try to teach the young people that work here that that is what we are about, to do as much good as we can.   I have now been with CACRC for about two and a half years.

NCF: How do you think your perspective about the meaning of charity influenced how you responded when hurricane Katrina hit?

Nancy Jo Craig.

NC: Well you know, our way of thinking helped a lot.    The hurricane hit and it hit our community, too. Here in Baton Rouge we were hunkered down, even though we didn’t get the horrible flooding that New Orleans did but a lot homes were damaged by trees that fell down.  We lost electricity here at the office for many days.  We didn’t have internet connection, cell phones didn’t work, phones didn’t work.  I lost electricity at my house. Though we didn’t actually see the images of New Orleans until about a week and a half later because we didn’t have TV, we were hearing the helicopters above and seeing the people coming in.  One of the things that people in the rest of the country don’t understand is it was not just writing a check to the Red Cross, though people did that here as well.  There was this organic response of “we have to help”.  And people just opened up their homes to strangers.  My parents had doctors from all over the country staying at their house. I had friends from New Orleans staying with me.  People opened up their homes and you would go to the stores and people would be lined up filling their baskets with items just to give away.  People basically emptied the stores several times over to do that.  This organic response of, “we have to help,” that I think a lot of people in Baton Rouge didn’t even know they had in them just surfaced.

When we all found ourselves back here at the office, we felt that same kind of call because we’re actually two blocks from the River Center where most people were staying. Before we even got it into our heads that we would give away computers, we wanted to give away something, so we filled up on truck with all of our laptop bags and all of the tee shirts that we had from our last America Recycles Day.  We drove our truck down there, we filled it to the top and unloaded it at the River Center because we knew people needed clothing and we knew people would need to have something to put their stuff in.  A lot of people just got out with nothing.

People would come in on helicopters.  They’d get off the helicopters and come into the site.  Doctors  evaluated them and doctors evaluated them and determined where they should next be sent. It was just so awful, but also so wonderful because this place filled up with goods and items donated for evacuees by the Baton Rouge community. It was amazing, really, how resilient those people were.  Some of them had just been plucked from their rooftops but they were thankful, smiling and they would tell you their story.

Christina Torres, Office Manager for CACRC,
with a recipient.  

NCF: What kind of assessment process did you find yourself going through as you began to focus on the equipment needs of your community?

NC: The highest priority was finding enough donated equipment. Getting in touch with the National Cristina Foundation was like a miracle for us.

NCF: How did you find us?

NC: From a person named Steve Hargaddon, who called me and said, “what can I do?” and I just said, “we don’t have much to give away and I would really like to do as much as possible”.  And so he communicated about our need for computers on all of his list serves and Rob Zopf from NCF, who was on one of the list serves, responded.  It was, after that, such an amazing time.

People really wanted to help. The way the National Cristina Foundation’s system is set up, you would send information about a computer or computers you wanted to donate to me and I’d say yes we want that equipment. But then those people who were donating the computers would often e-mail or call after their donation got to us and they would want to know where they had gone.   A lot of times, I was able to tell them exactly.  I guess there is the thing about giving a computer versus writing a check—especially if it’s your computer.  You know you’re giving it away and then you know that it’s going to be used someplace else to really help somebody. 

These gifts really made a difference.  They helped jump start a lot of people’s lives, including non-profits themselves. One of the things that happened after the storms is that non-profits that are often the first responders were in the areas where the hurricanes hit.  They were hurt, too.  People would donate office space to them and various other things but the organizations needed computers to get their work started. We worked with the Louisiana Association of Non-Profit Organizations to identify the nonprofits that needed computers.  .  They spread the word about us on their website and many non-profits and faith based organizations then contacted us to tell us about their lost equipment that needed to be replaced.  I think the first set of computers that we gave were 75 computers that went over to the River Center. Volunteers from Tech Soup networked them and those were the computers that displaced people used to contact FEMA, to try and find their missing loved ones, or access other critical information.

NCF: We don’t realize the impact of computers in our daily lives until there is a disaster and they have been lost.

NC: That’s right.  And NCF knows they’re an integral part of people’s lives, necessary for schools to rebuild, for non-profits to get started again and also for individuals to reestablish themselves.  CACRC’s  main work was focusing on non-profits and schools. After the hurricanes, however, we added support to individuals who were affected by the storms.

NCF: In a previous discussion, we talked about how the hurricanes revised your theories about what the concept of community is all about.  You described how you brought 50 computers into the center of a totally devastated area.

NC: Yes I remember that place well.  Recently, we were contacted by the National Children’s Defense Fund. They’re doing what they call Freedom Schools in New Orleans and throughout the areas that have been impacted by the hurricanes.  You know a lot of people forget that there were two hurricanes.  There was hurricane Katrina and then there was hurricane Rita.  Hurricane Rita, though most people in the United States haven’t really heard much about  it actually wiped out entire coastal communities in Louisiana. These Freedom Schools are in those areas, too, not just in New Orleans.   So much of New Orleans still looks like the hurricane happened yesterday and it’s so hard to see that.  It just takes your breath away, building after building standing empty.  Mold is everywhere.  Where are the people?  Driving to deliver the computers, we turned into the parking lot and found a tiny shopping center where there had once been a hair salon.  Now it was the Freedom School. 

Mauricio Zuleta (Director of Programs for CACRC),
helps a recipient.

This place consisted of three giant rooms just filled with children of all ages and there was one teacher for every ten kids.  All over the walls, there were just beautiful drawings made by these kids and writings about how they could be of service to their community.  Those kids were just so vibrant and happy, even in the midst of all that still looks horrible.  You could see that there are these small pockets of community coming back to life and the kids were a big part of it.  These children were very resilient and also happy that our computers were going to be there for them. 

NCF: You sent us letters from some of your recipients.   I wrote down a quote from one of the women.  She said “I tell my kids not to worry, God will make a way for us to get the help we need.” and she thanked you for the computer she received as part of the help she had prayed for.

NCF: Tell us what supported you through this whole especially difficult period.

NC: Well, I guess it really was wonderful to actually have a job that was meaningful and was helping because I don’t know what it would have been like to just not feel like you were a part of the recovery.  That really made me feel very joyful and it transformed this organization.  It has really changed the lives of all these young people who work here.

It is mostly young people working here and they really get it.  They really get the whole idea of helping other people and we learned that we can do so much more.  The idea of refurbishing 3,000 – 5,000 computers in a year to give out to people and organizations is a lot more than we’d ever done before and so we learned how to do things differently.  We learned how to do things faster.  It really created a much tighter knit organization.  As a team, we really had to work more closely.   We had to rely on each other a lot more and I think that the idea that we are a non-profit that gives back to the community is really deeply instilled in everyone here.  It hadn’t been quite like this before.

I think once this hurricane relief effort is over we’re going to build our Computers For Louisiana Families program.  We have a huge population of people who are underprivileged in this community.  Many, many children are living in poverty.  So we will keep up the momentum.

NCF: What do you believe that charities, such as National Cristina Foundation, can learn from you and this experience about important agendas such as disaster relief, rebuilding communities, and helping families?  It’s had an impact on us too.

NC: I will tell you that we would absolutely not have been able to do this without the National Cristina Foundation.  I think that the donations that we received through you or through your connections totaled at least 1800 technology items.

NCF: Our work could not have been accomplished without your organization and the contacts and reach that you have in your local community.

NC: The fact that you were well established, had a national reputation, and had national contacts was just invaluable to us.  Your system of an individual being able to give is also magnificent because it really resulted in a person giving to another person and we were just sort of the flow through for that.  We refurbished all the computers, but it was nice to be able to work in a way that allowed a person to tangibly give to another person.  Your question about what do we learn…I guess, I don’t really know.  I’m an emotional thinker.  I guess that we learn that we can really make a difference and we have really made a difference.

NCF: Every story that is told is testimony to that.

CACRC intern, Matt Triche.

NC: Having a computer has really made a big difference to people.  I’ve had people just say, “it made THE difference for me.”  “It made THE difference for our organization.”   “It made THE difference for our church.”  A lot of the schools just wouldn’t have been able to get started without these computers.

NCF: So as people read this, what do we want them to keep in mind about what happened and how people helped?  What do they still need to think about?

NC: Well, just that, in a way, a lot of what you get from the media is how government failed.  But in a sense, when a tragedy like this happens, it happens.  We live in the natural world.  The world has floods and tornados and earthquakes.  How communities rebuild is through the grace and caring of other individuals.  It’s not government.  Government can help but it has to be that other quality -- that other organic upwelling that “I have got to help.”  People need clothes; they need food; and they also need computers.  Computers, whether it’s to help the emergency workers, such as the people who worked in tents down in St. Bernard, meeting 3,000 individuals every day. They needed those computers to order their supplies.  All of that makes a difference.  It’s people giving to people.

When a person decides that they want to give their computer to the National Cristina Foundation, they should feel honored.  They should feel thankful that there is an organization like yours that actually helps them be able to give that gift.  Instead of doing whatever else they might do with it.  These gifts absolutely do good and they really help other people immensely.  I’ve seen it on people’s faces.  It really makes a big impact on their lives.

NCF: Over the next six months or year where do you see you see your work going and how do you expect things to change within the New Orleans community? How might that impact the amount of time and work that you continue to direct towards the relief efforts?

NC: Sometime this year, we have to wind down the big push on individuals because it’s so labor intensive.  We want to continue it through the end of the year – now I said this last year too.  So we’ll see.  Today, I received several e-mails from different people saying, “can you help?” We’re a Methodist Church in New Orleans.”  “We’re just getting back on our feet, we need three computers can you help us.”  And the answer is always going to be, “of course”.  As New Orleans gets back on its feet, people will need more computers.  For instance, the Louisiana Association of Non-Profit Organizations just opened a non-profit center there and we will supply all the computers for them.  A lot of non-profits are working together.  Over time, they’ll probably be able to get their own places and get started again.  We’ll do whatever can to support this important work.  We’d really like to be able to help more in the New Orleans School System since we haven’t really been able to make headway into that area, yet.

NCF: How many of the displaced populations have returned to New Orleans?

NC: That is hard to answer.  What we know is that hundreds of thousands of people are gone.  I’ve heard there are now about half a million people left.  Many want to return.

NCF: I understand that the scale of destruction was so significant in New Orleans that  the storm destroyed nearly 19,000 businesses and more than 200,000 apartments and homes.

An evacuee uses computer lab to study.

NC: You asked what helped me get through this. The generosity of other people has just been stunning and sometimes I would just go home and cry.  Not because I was sad, but just because I was so touched by how lovely other people can be. I feel so blessed that I am in the job where I could help people help other people.  There are so many thank yous.

NCF: What does that say about what a community truly is?

NC: I think a community is as strong as the people that are in it.  In a time of crisis you realize how interconnected you are.  You can’t have people in need without turning toward them and reaching out and helping.  The National Cristina Foundation for computers is like the American Red Cross for bringing help to those in need.  You’ve done the equivalent of that for the people who were down and it’s just been amazing.

NCF: And we couldn’t have done it without you. Reaching out to people who can extend our reach is what it’s all about in our grassroots partner network.

 

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