Train of Hope

Northshore program packs supplies to Northeast

“We’ve gone through Katrina, we’ve  just gone through Isaac — we really felt  like we wanted to help.” Donna O’Daniels, Mandeville volunteer

Organizations and individuals across the greater New Orleans area are stepping up to “pay it forward” to those in the northeast affected by Hurricane Sandy, knowing first hand how it feels to see one’s own community ravaged by a mega-storm, as well as the sense of gratitude for help sent from strangers across the country.

Last Friday night, Slidell resident Kim Bergeron and Mandeville resident Donna O’Daniels stayed up late chatting on Facebook while watching television coverage of the devastation wrought by Sandy, which made landfall in New Jersey on Oct. 29.

“We’ve gone through Katrina, we’ve just gone through Isaac — we really felt like we wanted to help,” O’Daniels said.

She said that they had donated to the Red Cross, but that it didn’t feel like enough.

“It was personal,” O’Daniels said. “We have experience first hand with what these folks are going through.”

Thus was born the Train of Hope, an idea that rapidly materialized into an effort to load an Amtrak train full of the most critically needed supplies. At 7:57 this morning, the train was to leave Slidell, bound to Newark and packed with donated goods ranging from batteries to baby formula. Bergeron and O’Daniels were also on board for the 30-hour journey.

Beginning last Saturday, the two women and their team of volunteers began collecting supplies and stocking them in a warehouse in Slidell. Donations were taken until noon Thursday. O’Daniels called the response from the north shore community “incredible, overwhelming and “absolutely astonishing.” A New Orleans pickup location also was added to the effort.

“We’ve got a whole warehouse full of stuff,’’ O’Daniels said Thursday afternoon.

A critical part of the project was connecting with a city councilman, Tim Occhipinti, in Hoboken, N. J., O’Daniels said. From there, they were able to able to cut through red tape, identify the most critical needs and make sure that the supplies would get into the right hands upon arrival. Locally, O’Daniels said Sen. David Vitter’s office helped them connect with the right people at Amtrak, who donated space in the train as well as three tickets. Both O’Daniels and Bergeron also utilized their own connections in the community, as O’Daniels is the president and CEO of the St. Tammany Tourist and Convention Commission and Bergeron is the director of cultural affairs for the city of Slidell.

O’Daniels said they wanted to make sure hard-hit surrounding regions that aren’t always the center of media attention were reached, as she and Bergeron live in suburban areas.

From locally based corporate donations, including 8,400 bottles of Abita root beer and cases full of PJ’s coffee, to toothpaste and toothbrushes collected from dentist offices, to piles of blankets and jackets gathered by going door-to-door, the supplies amassed were all identified by Occhipinti as the most pressing needs.

O’Daniels said that social media played a significant role in the organizing effort, which took less than a week to transform from an idea chatted about late one night between two friends into a supply train headed north. When a Facebook friend in Ohio wanted to give money, O’Daniels told her they weren’t set up to accept money. So the friend went online and ordered supplies from a retailer that was then picked up at a location in Covington.

In addition, O’Daniels said that Occhipinti relied heavily on Facebook and Twitter to keep in close up-to-the-minute contact with residents about who needed what and where. O’Daniels said that people can follow their journey to New Jersey on their Facebook page, TrainofHopeSandyRelief, and at their Twitter account @trainofhope. The train will arrive Saturday afternoon.

Other groups, businesses, and governmental agencies throughout the region announced plans over the course of the week to assist people affected by Sandy.

Last Wednesday, 12 volunteers with the South Louisiana chapter of the Red Cross headed north, driving in five emergency response vehicles for a two-week stint working to help with “mobile feeding” in affected neighborhoods in New Jersey. They joined 11 volunteers who had been deployed from Louisiana before the storm made landfall.

On Sunday, 25 Louisiana State Troopers headed north, answering the request for support from New Jersey State Police. “The State of Louisiana certainly understands the importance of emergency support during a time of crisis,” Col. Mike Edmonson said in a news release. Edmonson said that the state police in New Jersey were one of the first agencies to respond and provide assistance following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The state coordinated an effort that allowed the deployed troopers to vote in Tuesday’s election via fax.

On Monday, Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced that the city will host a NOLA Pay it Forward Concert benefit concert Nov. 20 at the Mahalia Jackson Theater.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone in devastated areas because we understand what it’s like to suffer through consequences,” Landrieu said. “The Northeast was there for us following Katrina, and while many in this region are still recovering from Isaac, New Orleans wants to pay it forward to those impacted by Sandy.”

The line-up has not yet been announced but is listed as featuring New Orleans musicians. Tickets are on sale through Ticketmaster for $50.

On Wednesday, Whole Foods Markets announced that their checkout registers were set up to accept $1, $5 and $10 donations for the Red Cross through Nov. 15.

The Jazz Foundation of America, which helped New Orleans musicians get back on their feet following Katrina, began efforts last week to help musicians in New York City who have had their gigs cancelled, can’t travel and are living without some basic necessities.

“We know what it is like to be wondering when life will get back to normal,” O’Daniels said. “And it was those moments that the generosity of complete strangers got us through. This is a way to show that the people of Louisiana care about them.”