CHRIS KATTERJOHN Commentary: Connections compel volunteerism

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A kind of convergence overwhelmed me this week. It peaked when I received an e-mail Aug. 30 from my counterpart at New Orleans CitiBusiness.

The publisher of the business journal serving the Big Easy was facing the Big Difficult: He was trying to put out his next issue from Baltimore because he and his employees couldn’t get to their offices, courtesy of Hurricane Katrina.

Turns out that was the lesser of two evils. He also wrote: “My home is

near the lakefront, where all the news is about the breaching of levee walls. Doesn’t look good. Maybe as much as 10-12 feet of water in my house.”

All of a sudden, the news and images of hurricane damage in the South hit closer to home. All of a sudden, I had a personal connection. I could relate to the upheaval in my publishing business and the potential loss of my home to something over which I had no control.

That’s how it is with tragedy and misfortune. We empathize, but we don’t really feel it until it hits someone we know. We don’t know it until it hits us or someone we love.

During the week prior, I had attended a couple of meetings for United Way committees I serve on. At a Thriving Families Impact Council meeting, we listened to the head of the Mental Health Association in Marion County rattle off alarming statistics about mental illness in central Indiana.

In the council’s previous meeting, a representative from Fairbanks Hospital spouted off equally alarming statistics about substance abuse among local teen-agers.

In both cases, the speakers acknowledged the uphill battles they and their hard-working, overworked colleagues face in meeting the needs and trying to effect change in the lives of those who suffer. They also lamented how few people in the community really know the facts and appreciate the severity of the problem.

Also this week, as a member of the review team that awards grants to human-services practitioners, I had the opportunity to read 28 war stories from the front lines of community service. These folks are the ones who do and direct the work to help those in our community who need it most, and their personal stories of long hours, heavy workloads and dedication to the cause are compelling beyond words.

It occurred to me that most people don’t hear these kinds of stories. It reminded me that-just like the hurricane story-my direct exposure to these things is what makes me care. It’s what compels me to get involved and to be passionate about giving back to the community.

It’s too bad more people can’t have the experience.

These thoughts are swirling in my brain as the United Way of Central Indiana gears up for its 2005 campaign, which is set to kick off later this week with a goal of raising somewhere north of $35 million.

If more people were exposed to the kinds of discussions I have the privilege of hearing and participating in, it would be easier for the United Way and all community-service organizations to reach their financial goals.

A nice connection was made for me the day after Katrina hit when I learned that the local chapter of the American Red Cross had already deployed five people, one emergency response vehicle and its local 10-station call center to assist in relief efforts. Volunteers and equipment from the local branch of the Salvation Army will also be used.

Both are United Way agencies.

The vast majority of United Way dollars are invested locally to deal with the myriad community challenges we face in helping central Indiana residents who need help, but it’s also nice to know some resources are deployed in the all-handson-deck response to major human disasters elsewhere.

Take your next opportunity and get involved.

Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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