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feature

Volunteer Field Work

by Tim Kaldahl

The impact of Hurricane Katrina has had regional, national and international implications.  Helene Quigley, a graduate student in the School of Communication at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), fully understands that.  Katrina became much more personal for her, though.

"You meet all of these wonderful people who have all come from the most traumatic situations," she said.  "You just wonder what's going to happen to them."

At the start of the fall semester, Quigley answered a call for volunteers from her former employer, the American Red Cross, and went to Louisiana for 16 days to serve as one of the organization's communications experts.  This was also her first semester as a UNO graduate student and teaching assistant.  She said the faculty in the School of Communication understood the importance of the volunteer assignment, and they helped make her trip south possible.

"It was challenging, but we felt it was something we could do to help with the relief effort," said Jeremy Lipschultz, director of the UNO School of Communication.  The school has a dozen teaching assistants this semester.  Dr. Lipschultz said it took a little schedule juggling by Karen Dwyer, an associate professor in the school and the basic speech course director who coordinates the graduate teaching assistants' schedule, but the graduate student course work never suffered.

"I was more than willing to juggle her teaching schedule with another graduate student so she could go and do this important work for the people of Louisiana without having to worry," Dr. Dwyer said. 

With the class she was teaching at UNO covered, Quigley was fully able to focus on her work in Louisiana.  "It's the magnitude of what you see and hear," she said.

Initially, her job put her in the heart of a relief center in Baton Rouge, La., about 80 miles from New Orleans.  The city's Civic Center wasn't as vast as the Superdome or Astrodome, but it had more than 5,000 evacuees living there when she arrived.  Scheduled 12-hour days typically became 15 hours plus because of the work.

As a spokesperson, Quigley served as a media liaison, a writer and a general helping hand for the Red Cross.  It was a role she was familiar with.  Quigley had been the communication director for Omaha's Heartland Chapter of the American Red Cross for seven years before leaving to pursue freelance work.  She kept her name on the books to help out, though.

"You never really leave the Red Cross," she said.  More than 212,900 disaster relief workers from the Red Cross have been assigned to hurricane-related projects since September.

While she was in Louisiana, she saw none of the disorganization and evacuee disarray that became a national news story.  While communication technology – cell phones, the Internet, even land line telephones – initially failed and failed to keep people in touch, the work done by the Red Cross and other relief organizations kept individuals and families safe and began reconnecting them to extended family, friends and community, she said.

"This really was the experience of a lifetime, and I got to meet people who were truly angels," she said.  Physicians, nurses, mental health workers and other volunteers all did amazing work.  As a communications specialist, she said she had a first-hand opportunity to see that work up close.

By the end of her time in Baton Rouge, the number of people staying at the Civic Center had dropped to about 2,500.  During the last days of her volunteer assignment, Quigley left the city for smaller communities that were not as hard hit by the hurricane but were still coping with health and infrastructure issues that were largely out of the national spotlight.

"Flexibility is a big lesson learned," Quigley said.  "There are times when you have to change what you want to do because of the situation."

Since she has come back to campus, Quigley has found herself being flexible, too.  She has caught up with her own class work and, instead of teaching classes, she has been working in the UNO School of Communication's Speech Center.

"Helene is a terrific graduate teaching assistant," Dr. Lipschultz said.  "She has a great personality, and she's a great fit for helping students using the Speech Center."

Dr. Dwyer added Quigley has brought back a wealth of new practical knowledge that will help in her teaching role.  "Being a spokesperson is great real-world public speaking experience," she said. 

Quigley's goal is to get a master's degree emphasizing technical communication and design, and to continue teaching visual communication.  Prior to her graduate work, she taught graphic design at Metropolitan Community College and Bellevue University for three years.

"New Orleans has always been one of my favorite cities," she said.  "I'm hoping to get there again once it's running smoothly."

Quigley will co-teach a daylong Public Affairs I class in February with Roseanne Bachman, communication director from the Heartland Chapter of the American Red Cross. Call the Red Cross at 402.343.7700 for details.

Tim Kaldahl is assistant director of media relations at UNO.  He can be reached at tkaldahl@mail.unomaha.edu.

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