9, 2005, Elgin- Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) Day
Care Licensing Representative II Sue Michaelson was part of Governor Blagojevich's
State of Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) contingency of Illinois State
Agencies, providing Disaster Relief efforts to Hurricane Katrina victims.
a youth, I dreamed of joining the Peace Corps," said Michaelson. "Unfortunately,
my Dad did not feel that I would be safe 'curing' the ills of the world, so my
perceived goals were thwarted by the best intentions of a concerned parent."
Hurricane Katrina struck, Michaelson along with the rest of the world, was shocked
and horrified by the images of devastation captured in the daily news reports.
As she tracked the needs of the people caught in the path of destruction, Michaelson
became increasingly frustrated by her limited ability to help. To counter these
feelings, she busied herself with writing checks to various relief organizations,
emptying her closets of usable clothing and blankets, and volunteering to bring
supplies to drop off points. Michaelson also researched the American Red Cross
Disaster Certification program, only to find that the training program would take
more time to complete than the people of Louisiana and Mississippi had to wait
for her to become "approved" to help.
September 9, 2005, Governor Blagojevich issued a plea for state volunteers to
be stationed in the areas that needed help and Michaelson jumped at the opportunity.
"I knew that this was the conduit that I had been preparing my whole life
for," added Michaelson." "In some small way, this contingency of
Illinois workers could actually provide assistance to the real people with the
haunted faces, whose shattered lives were showcased nightly by the media."
obtained approvalfrom DCFS and State management to travel to the Gulf Coast to
offer her services.
next day Michaelson's team was to report to the Illinois State Fairgrounds in
Springfield, where they were inoculated and divided into three teams of 25 each,
for transportation by bus to destinations of Bogalusa, Slidell and Covington,
Louisiana. A 19-hour bus trip later, she joined the "A Team" of 25 workers
from various Illinois agencies in Baton Rouge. Unfortunately, when they arrived
there was not a safe place to camp. But thanks to the generosity of the Antioch
Family Church, Michaelson's team found shelter and spent the next two nights sleeping
"cot to cot" with evacuees of New Orleans.
was part of a team that assisted families by issuing a "debit" type
card for food stamp assistance. Illinois sent three teams of 25 state workers
each to Louisiana areas hardest hit by hurricane Katrina; each was equipped with
a mobile communications center with satellite dish capability and 30 laptops.
Their task was to interview families and data enter the information, thereby activating
the debit card of benefits. During the 12 days of their Illinois relief effort,
they interviewed evacuees, data entered information, and activated funds to provide
more than 25,000 families with immediate food stamp debit card benefits.
had no idea what our task would entail, except that we would be doing "data
entry", said Michaelson. "We were told that we should expect to live
in primitive and unsafe conditions. I pride myself on being afraid of NOTHING...except
for snakes. Our orientation began with an instructive to shake out our sleeping
bags and boots daily to displace any snakes that may have sought haven in our
camp. Admittedly, I had pause for concern."
first of the A Team stations was set up at Gonzales, where the Louisiana state
fairground complex had been converted into a shelter camp, housing thousands of
evacuees. Concurrently, these grounds were also the site of the animal rescue
operation for the entire Gulf area. The post-traumatic shock and skittishness
of the exotic animals, horses and domestic pets mirrored exactly the effects of
the plights of their human counterparts, who also had made the campgrounds their
the Covington Louisiana Social Services office, the A Team disembarked from the
bus to the applause of hundreds of patiently waiting citizens, standing in the
stark humidity of a 100 degree day shouting, "Thank You, Illinois!".
Social Services workers were attempting to process benefits for thousands of families
each day, in lines outside their office which wrapped throughout the surrounding
neighborhood, and which began to form as early as 2 a.m. daily.
that would be Michaelson's life for the next twelve days. It was a life-changing
experience that Michaelson will never forget, but a choice she would not hesitate
to make again.
a parent myself, I had always taught my own children to 'step up' and 'pay forward',"
added Michaelson. "But I often wondered how much of an impact mere words
would have. I personally had to make a difference, and this would be the legacy
that my children could then emulate in their own lives."
Illinois Department of Children and Family Services