Nancy Becker and her colleagues at UCG, a Rockville newsletter publisher, wanted to do something to help survivors of Hurricane Katrina, but didn't want to just write a check.
At first, they wanted to donate supplies for families staying at the D.C. Armory. District officials said they had enough. They wanted to help a family staying at the armory, but couldn't get inside to make the offer.
So they went farther afield. Working through Cherish the Children, a charity helping hurricane evacuees in the Houston area, UCG offered the Stander family -- Darren and Kerry and teenage daughters Amie and Brandi -- a chance to make a clean break.
Late of St. Bernard Parish, more recently residents of a Houston church shelter, the Standers are scheduled today to move into a furnished townhouse in Rockville, rent-free for now, courtesy of UCG and the property's owner.
They haven't offered them jobs, but they have drawn a tight circle of corporate support around a family that is already expressing plans to stay in the region and not return to Louisiana.
The Standers are driving a comfortable cream-colored sedan lent to them by Fitzgerald Auto Malls. They have appointments for free checkups with doctors. They have a $1,000 American Express gift card to buy clothes and necessities. Their youngest daughter has registered for school and the oldest daughter is planning work on her GED. Darren Stander, 39, an iron welder by trade, hopes to arrange job interviews by the end of the week and have the family quickly back on its feet.
In the saga of post-hurricane Katrina, the connection between the Standers and UCG is as much an act of fate as of charity, a luck-of-the-draw decision by company executives that it was better to intervene deeply in a single family's life than hand money to a large relief organization. With tens of thousands still wanting basic necessities, company officials said they were convinced it was still better to get a few people back on their feet.
Their only requirement in deciding whom to help was that the heads of household not have criminal records or serious disabilities that would require long-term assistance.
"We never felt real comfortable that writing a big check to the American Red Cross would make a big difference," said Nancy Becker, a partner at the 1,000 person firm. "So we decided not only to leverage our financial donations but also leverage the resources we have in the Washington area and in Montgomery County. That would have a much bigger impact than leaving families in shelters. . . . We're more nimble."
UCG officials are working on finding perhaps two other families to benefit from a network of goods and services cobbled together through connections with local businesses. They have already lined up more donations from Marlo furniture and the property management firm KSI Services Inc. UCG has resources to help for only a year, and has committed a minimum of $50,000 to the effort, and offered to double employee contributions up to a maximum of $100,000.
Nick Shapiro, a spokesman for the Red Cross, would not comment directly on UCG's aid philosophy, but said money donated to the organization after Katrina hit has been well spent. He said the more than $653.4 million the agency has collected has gone to help provide more than 207,000 victims with shelter, 7.7 million hot meals and $100 million in financial assistance.
Giving to the Red Cross, though, isn't as hands on. Becker and the dozen or so other employees involved in the effort quickly discovered being an impromptu relief agency wasn't easy.
Since finding the Standers, UCG employees have been consumed with details and problem solving -- finding the furniture that did not show up on time at the family's new residence; figuring out why the American Express card could not be activated.
The Standers said they have no desire to go back to Louisiana, where they were stranded for several days in their home after the only bridge out of town was closed. Even before Katrina wiped out their parish of about 68,000, they were looking for a change and had plans to move to Mississippi, where they had bought some land. But now they don't want to go there either.
So they are going to make the best of it in Montgomery. Darren Stander heard construction jobs were plentiful in the Washington area and he wants to go on interviews right away, even though he has barely slept in the past two weeks. He also has a rash on one arm and at night, he said, his arms ache and his heart races. His wife has been having stomach trouble.
Darren Stander has already noticed that it costs more to live here. In St. Bernard Parish, about five miles from downtown New Orleans, a family could easily find a home for less than $250,000, at least before the hurricane.
Then there are the usual problems associated with moving, like not knowing the roads. "Back home, there's one highway in and out, so you can't get lost," said Kerry Stander, 39.
Brandi, 14, has to adjust to a new school. Yesterday morning, the family drove over to Julius West Middle School on Great Falls Road to enroll Brandi in the eighth grade. While her parents filled out paperwork, she caught a glimpse of her soon-to-be-classmates, many of them shorter than her, and wrinkled her nose.
"The kids here are two feet tall," she said.
Helping them through the day-to-day struggles is a young UCG employee, coincidentally named Katrina.
"They didn't want to tell us her name at first," Darren Stander recalled with a laugh. "Nancy called her, 'Kat.' "
Darren Stander says that relocating to Montgomery County was "an opportunity I couldn't pass up." He and his family are to move into a furnished townhouse in Rockville, rent-free for now.
Brandi Stander, 14, is trying to adjust to a new school. She is enrolled in eighth grade
at Julius West Middle School, where she says the children seem much smaller.
Brandi Stander takes a math placement test at Julius West Middle School.