Many people wanted to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, but struggled with how to do so. Which organization to target for donations? How much to give?
I faced that question, too -- multiplied by several thousand.
I was chairman of the 28th annual Takoma Park Folk Festival, which was held on Sept. 11. More than 6,000 people attended the fair, which featured 60 performances, 55 artisans and craftspeople, and the information booths of more than 100 community organizations.
In the days after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, I started receiving calls from people who wanted to set up booths to raise funds for those displaced by the storm and subsequent flood. My initial response was a Scrooge-like "no."
The festival is run by volunteers, and producing it is an immense challenge. I wasn't prepared for the additional worry about which fundraising groups were the worthiest or how to accommodate last-minute festival participants. Further, the festival has its own fundraising goals -- perpetuating its existence and supporting local youth groups. By Labor Day, however, I had received so many calls that I realized that the festival needed to support Katrina relief efforts.
Many of the organizations that had registered to be at the festival, such as the Humane Society and several churches and synagogues, would be collecting for Katrina relief. So the festival committee developed announcements to encourage visits to those booths.
For groups not already registered, we offered a deal: Because the festival needed so many volunteers, we would trade access to the site for a few hours of work. To my surprise, with one exception, the good Samaritans all rejected the proposal. Perhaps they felt that the virtue of their goal was sufficient to have their request granted.
As I thought about the 450 hours I contribute annually to organize the festival, my inner Scrooge returned. I have a full-time job and a family. Under the circumstances, I was less than awed when people were willing to spend the day at the festival, sitting at a table under a canopy, enjoying great music and selling brownies to raise money for Katrina victims. I had read that the Red Cross was turning away volunteers because it didn't have anything for them to do, yet I couldn't get people to work for two hours even with Katrina fundraising as an inducement.
Then I had second thoughts. People were suffering in the wake of Katrina, and the festival had an obligation to do everything it could to alleviate the suffering. If a few fundraising organizations created extra chaos, so be it.
Fortunately, two days before the festival, I reached an agreement with the parents of several children who wanted to have a booth to solicit donations. In exchange for prime space, the parents and older siblings of these children helped in the morning before the opening of the festival and hauled trash in the afternoon. The festival attracted a huge crowd, and the children raised more than $1,200 for Katrina relief.
As I drove home exhausted that night, my car laden with debris from the festival, I couldn't get the Katrina experience out of my mind. The festival had been a success, and $1,200 would go to Katrina relief. But that achievement felt inadequate. Who would do the hard, long-term work of helping Katrina victims restart their lives? Somehow I doubt it will be the people who wouldn't even empty trash for a couple of hours at the Takoma Park Folk Festival.
-- Kevin Adler