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Day Care Licensing Representative
Sue Michaelson


November 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.

"As 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."

When 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.

On 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."

Michaelson obtained approvalfrom DCFS and State management to travel to the Gulf Coast to offer her services.

The 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.

Michaelson 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.

"We 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."

The 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 temporary home.

At 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.

And 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.

"As 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."

-30 -

Diane Jackson
Illinois Department of Children and Family Services



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