Volunteer relief worker Barbara West was misidentified in a photo caption in yesterday's Maryland section.
The motel housekeepers had been saying it for a long time -- "You're just a paycheck away from homelessness" -- so they knew exactly what to do after Thursday's tornado touched down in Reisterstown, destroying nearly 150 apartments and houses.
It was Friday when the housekeepers at the Comfort Inn in Pikesville, most of them minimum-wage earners, came to a simple conclusion as family after displaced family drifted in with whatever belongings they could salvage from their wrecked homes. People needed clothing.
FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION
Nowhere was the need more evident than in one motel suite, where one of the housekeepers saw a baby wrapped in a bath towel, the only garment the infant's parents could find. That family and 16 others were referred to the Comfort Inn by the American Red Cross, which is paying $35 a night per suite until the families can carve out new lives in more permanent quarters.
"We just got the housekeeping department together to donate whatever they could," said Debra Campbell, the executive housekeeper. "We started asking people we knew. We got on the phone and called relatives, friends, family." The housekeepers also pooled $80 in cash. For the family that couldn't clothe its baby, they bought diapers for the baby and clothes for all three children.
Meanwhile, workers went home and came back within hours, carting boxes and bags of clothing. Hattie Ross, the assistant supervisor, drove home and came back with five bags of clothes and about 35 pairs of shoes.
Many of the 18 housekeepers carted in clothing from their inner-city homes the same way they get to work every day -- by bus, sometimes transferring once or twice along the way.
"Our motto is, 'Caring is sharing,' " Ms. Campbell said, adding that the tornado demonstrated that homelessness isn't the exclusive domain of the urban poor. "We're into the homeless, period. The way we look at it, we're just a paycheck away from homelessness. Middle-class people can become homeless when they have a storm or lose their jobs or whatever."
Within the space of six hours Friday, the housekeepers had put out the word and stuffed a motel suite full of clothing for babies, children and adults. Employees donated not only their clothing but also their time -- arranging the clothing on tables and racks, and refolding garments as people combed through the piles for something that fit.
By 3 p.m. yesterday more than half of the clothing had been taken by grateful tenants, but the room still resembled a well-stocked thrift shop.
Inside one of the suites, 84-year-old Margaret Coleman sat in a hospital gown and a bathrobe purchased by the motel staff. She was brought to the Inn after being discharged from Carroll
County Hospital, where she was treated for an array of bruises and a broken toe she sustained when the tornado blew the roof off her home at the Chartley Park Apartments, knocking her unconscious in a rain of boards and debris. "I'm all shook up. I've got a lot of pain in my back," she said, pointing also to a swollen wrist and the cast on her foot. "But everybody's been real kind to me," she added, praising also the Red Cross workers who comforted her in the hospital and escorted her to the motel.
Most of the people displaced by the tornado found temporary housing with friends and family and didn't need motel accommodations. Yesterday, many of them carted away the last scraps of clothing, furniture and books from apartments shorn of their roofs.
Meanwhile, the Comfort Inn staff intends to keep handing out clothes as long as the displaced tornado victims need it. Actually, they are encouraging anyone who needs clothing because of fire, disaster or economic misfortune to stop by and ** try a few things on.
"Everyone was put here for a purpose," said Ms. Campbell. "We don't care who needs help. To us, it doesn't matter. It may sound melodramatic, but if everybody were to take that attitude, the world would be a better place."