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Mom, 2 others help 'neighbors' in need

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Vancouver mom Chantielle Johnston, 30, wasn't going to take no for an answer.

She wanted to fill a truck with diapers, wipes and formula for the youngest evacuees of Hurricane Katrina lodged at Houston's Astrodome, and deliver it herself. And that's exactly what she did.

"I didn't want to be part of the problem," Johnston said, but she knew babies in Houston needed help. With the support of her church, family and friends, she set out to make it happen. "It wasn't hard to raise funds for babies," she said.

On Sept. 2, she rented a truck, found a location near Regal Cinema, Carl's Jr. and Wal-Mart in Hazel Dell and three days later had a full load and two local volunteers to help her drive to Texas.

Phil Hart, 34, and Aaron Roiter, 24, joined Johnston for the almost nonstop trip. Hart was only given an hour's notice before the truck took off at 9 p.m. on Labor Day.

When Johnston first contacted the Oregon Food Bank and America's Second Harvest, their advice was that she not make the trip. But once she managed to contact the Houston Food Bank, who agreed to accept and distribute her delivery, the race was on to spread the word.

A friend helped her get an 18-foot banner printed for the side of the truck. A volley of e-mails was sent all over Vancouver asking for donations.

"It was awesome to give people the opportunity to help in a hands- on way," she said. "They loved the idea of being able to give items directly to the people in need, instead of just writing a check. We had lines of cars waiting to pull up to the truck and drop off donations. We couldn't take donations fast enough."

Some donors wrote goodwill messages on their care packages to Houston.

"One person took a marker and wrote, 'Vancouver, Washington, loves you and is thinking of you,'" she said.

Approximately $60,000 worth of products were donated over the weekend, Johnston estimates.

Once the truck was full and the trio got on the road, Johnston realized that she wasn't even quite sure where Houston was, so they bought a map in Troutdale, Ore.

"I did not know you could surf in Houston," she said. "Being from the Northwest, Texas wasn't really on my radar."

After a brief rest stop in Denver, the truck arrived at the Houston Food Bank early on Sept. 8, where piles of donations were sitting out in the hot sun. Hart says they got in line to unload the truck, but it seemed to be taking too long.

Johnston was worried that the supplies wouldn't directly reach the evacuees, so she convinced Hart to head directly to the Astrodome.

Despite a "No Donations Accepted Signs" and police guarding the entrances, Johnston managed to convince the guards that they had a scheduled delivery. The truck was allowed into the Astrodome.

"It was the destiny of this truck to get in," Johnston said.

"We pulled right up to the loading dock and started unloading the pallets," Hart said.

After their delivery, they were asked if they wanted to volunteer with the evacuees. Johnston and Roiter signed up as clergy for the day and Hart volunteered to work in the distribution center. Families turned up with shopping lists and Hart sorted out the items for them.

"It was neat to pick out diapers that I actually brought," Hart said.

But the drama wasn't over.

After they finished their day's work, Johnston called home to speak to her husband, Wayne, and discovered that he had just been in an accident with their children, ages 3 and 5.

No one was seriously injured, but Hart and Roiter took her straight to the airport so she could catch a flight home. Hart and Roiter then drove the truck back to Vancouver, returning late Sept. 11.

"We can't allow geography to limit who we consider our neighbors," Johnston said.

(C) 2005 The Columbian. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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