Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Internet Matchmaking: Those Offering Help and Those Needing It

Just you, your computer and the desire to help is all it takes to make a real difference to those in need.  plk
Internet Matchmaking: Those Offering Help and Those Needing It - New York Times
Read the entire article at: http://select.nytimes.com/mem/tnt.html?emc=tnt&tntget=2005/11/14/giving/14oconnell.html

WHERE can I deliver a truckload of clothing?"

Tom Wales, a stock trader in Ridgewood, N.J., was oozing frustration when he posted this plea on Sept. 13 on the New Orleans site of craigslist.org, which offers free access to local classifieds and discussion forums.

Mr. Wales's 15-year-old daughter, Tori, had led a clothing drive at her high school for victims of Hurricane Katrina, but neither the Red Cross nor the Salvation Army, overwhelmed themselves, wanted her carefully organized bags.

So Mr. Wales rented a truck and drove to Louisiana himself.  "The big bureaucracies didn't fit what I was trying to do, but I didn't know where to go," Mr. Wales recalled.

One of the many people who responded was Brendan Hendrix, a boilermaker who had quit his job to help New Beginning Outreach Ministries in Greensburg, La., in its disaster relief efforts.

Mr. Wales and another parent, Bob Edelman, arrived in Greensburg on Sept. 18, finding they were not alone.  Rental trucks from Boston and New York, as well as two volunteers from New York City, had also found their way there via Craigslist.

Scores of Americans like Mr. Wales had pioneered a new kind of philanthropy in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  Spurred to do something more personal than writing a check, they turned to the Internet, which linked people who wanted to help with those who needed it, often with no relief agency acting as a middleman.

Established sites like Craigslist and Yahoo Groups took on new purposes, while charity neophytes created dozens of new sites.

"Each major news event generates new phenomena online, and the new thing with Katrina was the spontaneous and distributed offers of personal charity," said Lee Rainie, project director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project in Washington.  "This is a new age of directed, individualized giving that is not dependent on existing agencies, and it has already become embedded in online culture." 
The flexibility of online organizations proved particularly compelling because citizens were reacting, in part, to reports about the difficulties faced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other large relief groups.  "People in such large numbers probably wouldn't have gotten into their own trucks except for that media storyline," Mr. Rainie said.  Sites like Craigslist also had plenty of users ready to mobilize.

"We are well known and have a category structure that covers all basic human needs, things like jobs and housing," said Jim Buckmaster, the chief executive of Craigslist.  "We quickly started new sites for cities like Baton Rouge and Shreveport."

The variety of activity on Craigslist ranged from pet rescue and food donations to offers of jobs, housing and volunteer services. The site also connected two like-minded mothers, one in California and one in Mississippi.

The result was an effective blog called Hurricane Katrina Direct Relief (gracedavis.typepad.com/katrinablog).

One of the mothers, Victoria Powell, is a tax lawyer in Madison, Miss., about three hours north of the coast.  She knew the situation in the small towns to the south would be dire.  "I asked myself, What would a mother do?"  "You'd get a Band-Aid kit and get started."  So she drove to a few shelters to find out their needs.  She collected contact names and addresses, then went on Craigslist and asked people to ship to the shelters.

In Santa Cruz, Calif., Grace Davis, a former biotechnology worker turned journalism student, saw Ms. Powell's post and set up a blog to advertise her S O S. Soon Ms.

Their success stories included supplying shelters with goods; getting pharmaceutical supplies donated by manufacturers directly to clinics; arranging for firefighters to donate equipment; and spurring donors to support a deli owner, Sunny Wilson, who was feeding dozens in her small Mississippi community for nothing.

Another Internet site that served as an information clearinghouse, with at least five million page views, was the KatrinaHelp Wiki (katrinahelp.info).  This effort (a "wiki" is a site that anyone can add to and edit) was started by 20 volunteers around the world who had worked on a similar site after the tsunami in South Asia, according to a co-founder, Rob Kline of Seattle.

The wiki first focused on its PeopleFinder database (a technology eventually adopted by Google) and then on ShelterFinder, one of the few comprehensive lists of shelter information available.

Summarized by Copernic Summarizer


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