Teen prepares mission to flood-stricken Iowa Love for Midwest fueled sympathy

July 27, 1993|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Staff Writer

No scuba gear.

But 16-year-old Jennifer Sokoloff of Pasadena was busy yesterday buying boots, "gunky" shoes, work gloves and last-minute wet-weather gear for a 10-day trip to Des Moines.

"I'm only one person, but I want to do what I can," explained the Chesapeake High School senior, who leaves today. "I just want to help them clean up after the flood."

Jennifer's love affair with the Midwest began last summer after she settled on Drake University in Des Moines, where she plans to earn a degree as a pharmacist. But it wasn't only the college's new pharmacy building that attracted her.

"It's in Iowa, with all those cows; they're so cute," said Jennifer, who has named four members of her cow collection after The Beatles. "Now that all that has happened, it's like it's my city, too."

When the Mississippi River crested at record levels, forcing about 400 people in the Des Moines area from their homes, Jennifer's eyes were glued to the television newscasts. Iowa's governor has estimated damage to property, farms and crops at $2.72 billion.

Seeing the sympathy she felt toward the flood victims, her father, Len Sokoloff, decided to "call her bluff."

"I asked if she wanted to help. When she said yes right away, I thought, 'Well, I offered, I'd better follow through.' "

At first, Mr. Sokoloff was going to accompany his daughter, but when it became apparent that might be too difficult, they decided to try to find a way Jennifer could go on her own.

They called Drake University first, but the school survived the flood because it is on high ground. School officials suggested the United Way, which in turn suggested the family contact the Rev. Karen Chakoian at the Central Presbyterian Church in Des Moines.

"I just thought 'What a sweet child,' " recalled Ms. Chakoian. "To think somebody would take this on themselves, take time off from work and come all the way from Baltimore, was just a boost. It's not like she's coming from Ohio."

Ms. Chakoian said she was determined to help Jennifer on her mission.

"I don't think I would do what Jennifer's doing, and what these other volunteers are doing -- taking off from their job, taking the time and expense to help people you don't know. I think that's very impressive," she said. "We've felt sort of swamped here, and to have all these kind people help is so overwhelming."

Because it would have seemed unfair "to turn down somebody so eager to help," Ms. Chakoian began calling her parishioners. Bill and Karen King agreed to have Jennifer stay with them.

The Kings, who also have a 16-year-old daughter named Jennifer, talked at length with the Sokoloffs this weekend, reassuring them their daughter would be in good hands during her stay.

Jennifer King is looking forward to meeting the other Jennifer.

"I was very surprised that someone my age wanted to help," Jennifer King said in a telephone interview. "She must be a very caring person."

Ms. Chakoian says Jennifer Sokoloff's arrival will probably be most helpful in a way the teen couldn't have realized.

"We're worried now about the economic impact of the flooding here," said Ms. Chakoian. "But I'm worried about compassion fatigue. Having somebody like Jenny come up is helpful now. The need isn't over. There are ongoing needs that will be less and less visible, but we're still going to need help for a while."

Once Jennifer arrives, Ms. Chakoian said she and the Kings will see how the 16-year-old can best help. Some of the options include assisting at a day-care center for flood victims -- "so people can clean up, or apply for aid, or do whatever they have to do without worrying about their children" -- and unloading trucks.

"I just want to help people. That's why I want to be a pharmacist," said Jennifer, who is more nervous about the plane ride than what she'll find in Des Moines. "If anything happened to me or my family, I'd want people to help us."

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