I heard Cooper Munroe tell her story at BlogHer 2006 and knew I had to include it in Blogger Stories. Cooper and Emily McKahnn are two "mommy bloggers" who proved that social media can impact not one life - not two lives - but thousands of lives. Their one small act of kindness, to help Katrina Moms, led to a nation-wide relief effort of moms helping moms. Theirs is a story of a new way of giving using 21 century technology with heart.
On August 31, after screaming at our televisions for two days, "Why isn't anyone helping these people?", we decided to turn our blog into a community corkboard of sorts where people could connect one-to-one, immediately and without intermediaries.
Having lived through 9/11 in New York and seen the mountains of donations flood into the city, only for the supplies to be stockpiled in distant warehouses because no one knew what to do with them all, we felt certain this could happen again in the Gulf States.
We -- two Moms who live in different towns and share a blog -- realized that the thousands of people fleeing their homes with nothing to their names would be going to temporary residences. They would have addresses. People could send packages to survivors directly.
We asked readers of our blog to list on our site the goods and supplies they would donate to people displaced by the hurricane. At the same time, we arranged for housing placement services, which by Thursday, September 1, had hundreds of thousands of rooms donated and available to survivors, to send evacuees to us once placements were made.
We have to admit we were shocked when the greater Internet community - a hip hop chat room, a knitting website, a "Chevy enthusiast" message board and just about everyone in between - took up the idea and news spread like lightning around the globe. Overnight, tens of thousands of people visited our site and offers poured in, from gently used clothing, linens, toys, to handmade pillows, kitchen supplies to phone cards loaded with minutes to frequent flier miles.
One woman offered a mobile home and all the resources her community, Lovell, Wyoming, had to offer. Another woman offered her used Audi. Through connections made on the site, on September 3rd, a group of moms in Chicago delivered an 18-wheeler full of water, diapers and first aid to the sheriff of a northern Louisiana town.
Soon it was clear our little blog couldn't handle all the traffic and information that was now filling it, so, with the help of volunteer computer programmers - in England, Germany and Mexico - who appeared out of the woodwork, we re-built the site on Word Press, with tabs and better organizational functions.
Most recently, for the 200 Katrina evacuees who have landed in Pittsburgh, Allegheny County worked with us to create a place within our site for Pittsburghers to help their new neighbors. Offers for the new arrivals, who are registered with the city, have included job training, stress relief sessions at a local hospital and handmade quilts. We have recently added a section to the site for Philadelphia too.
Americans with way too much stuff - clothes in excellent condition, slightly and sometimes never worn, toys in working order but ignored, impulse buys that don't match the décor, fashion or interest of the moment - wanted to help their fellow citizens in crisis. EBay solves the crammed closets dilemma for many people, but we heard repeatedly that people would willingly donate their extra things to stranded families if they believed their belongings would be used and appreciated.
As our eclectic group of donors illustrated, people from all walks of life were aching to give. We heard again and again how good it felt to send a box directly to someone who needed it. Donors wanted to be involved in a more connected way, person-to-person, family-to-family, and do more than simply write a check.
People on the receiving end told us much the same. A young, single mother emailed us saying she cried when she opened a "Been There Clearinghouse" box of clothing, toys and diapers with a handwritten note inside just for her and her son. It was such a relief because, she told us, "try lugging an infant two miles to the nearest place that's giving out goods. At that point all you have energy and room for is what food you can carry or fit in a stroller."
In the weeks that followed Katrina, we saw numerous bulletins advising people not to donate clothing or other supplies. "Send money" was the mantra. The relief organizations were equipped to hand out new basics like T-shirts and toiletries, but not the inflow of hard goods.
Understandable given the magnitude of the problem and the limitations of the existing disbursement system, but isn't it time we used available technology to upgrade our approach to crises?
We need to rethink how we respond in disasters and put the tremendous goodwill and resources of Americans and our neighbors to use.
Relief organizations are the primary resource in times of crisis. However, the Internet gives us an avenue to reach one person and one family at a time, and it is up to us to take advantage of what is, literally, at our fingertips. Our clearinghouse may not be the model for the long run, but it's a start to the conversation.
The national and local responses to Katrina were abysmal, but a new form of giving arose in response. Buses still weren't rolling into New Orleans, but ours and other online initiatives were arranging for goods to be delivered to the Gulf the next day.
Giving Americans a vehicle for contributing to the solution, with built-in mechanisms for screening recipients, is one way to take advantage of the instantaneous online communications that swirl around major news events every day. It won't be easy for entrenched bureaucracies to allow the wild wild web to play a roll in disaster recovery, but with email, websites, blogs and message boards driving more and more of the civic and political dialogue, people will soon expect nothing less.
If two mommy bloggers can get this much going, imagine what organizations, public and private, with actual resources could do.
Emily McKhann lives in Larchmont, NY and Cooper Munroe lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Their blog, The Been There Clearinghouse, recently received the Best of Blogs Award for Most Inspirational Blog of the Year.
Based on their experience with women online - mostly moms - who "take the hill" given the opportunity, Cooper and Emily were inspired to to build a web portal for mothers, called The MotherHood scheduled to launch in Fall 2006.
Update:The Been There Clearinghouse won a 2006 Best of Blog Awards for Most Inspirational Blog