FREMONT – While many people were watching the summer Olympics, Monica Jay was working 12-hour shifts without pay to help some of the thousands of people displaced by flooding in Louisiana.

Jay, a clinical therapist at Community Health Services in Fremont, was deployed to Louisiana as a disaster volunteer with the Red Cross. It was her first experience volunteering for the organization, but she was so impacted by what she witnessed that she plans to do it again.

She worked at Baton Rouge River Center, a concert hall that had been temporarily transformed into a mass shelter. More than 150,000 homes were affected by the floods.

Her work there was two-fold: provide psychological help for those struggling to process what happened, and help those made temporarily homeless identify barriers preventing them from leaving the shelter.

“It started with 1,200 people, and by the time I got there, there were still 500. By the time I left, they were down to 350 people,” Jay said. “We helped them find housing, shelter or family.”

Jay was thrown into the work with no prior knowledge of the community’s resources, but she learned quickly.

“When I arrived, they told me I’d be an expert in 24 hours, and they were right. I learned about FEMA and Catholic Charities and businesses that could help. People ask questions, and you find the answers.”

The most difficult to help were those like a 21-year-old man Jay met who were what she described as “living precariously” before the disaster. He was living on someone’s couch and unable to provide proof of residency, which made him unable to qualify for funding.

The Louisiana floods were the latest in a long string of difficulties for the young man. He was living in New Orleans when his father died of cancer shortly before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

“He was on the roof of an auto repair shop for two days before he was rescued, and he couldn’t swim. After that, he went into the system and got in a lot of trouble,” Jay said.

By the time she met him in Baton Rouge, the man had been trying to turn his life around, but he was now facing homelessness without any hope of help. When he mentioned an interest in joining the Marines, Jay helped connect him with one of the soldiers working at the shelter and encouraged him to look into the possibilities.

“I worked with him three days in a row,” she said. “The he came up to me and said, “Guess what I got? The address for the recruiting office.’”

Marines and members of the state police were working the shelter to protect the inhabitants from some of the more lowly members of society.

“The whole city was there, including your creepy neighbors, but now they’re sleeping in the cot next to you,” she said. “We had to throw out a few pedophiles.”

But Jay also witnessed bright moments, when volunteers went out of their way to make the inhabitants — like a two-year-old autistic boy — comfortable. He was staying in the shelter with his pregnant mother, and the fluorescent lights and loud, stimulating atmosphere were overwhelming for him.

“Fluorescent lights trigger kids to act out. The Red Cross built a blue room for him. It had cardboard walls, and inside, they put play dough and toys. It was a quiet place for him,” Jay said. “He was so different from when he was outside the box. He was always crying.”

What impressed Jay most about the experience was the optimistic attitudes of the people living in the shelter.

“The people in Louisiana are so spiritual and religious. I would ask them how they are doing, and they would say, ‘Blessed,’” she said. “They were living in a shelter, and they still had faith.”

Contact News-Messenger correspondent Sheri Trusty at or 419-639-0662.