By Sam Laird

“Hurricane-displaced people of Louisiana still need your help!” reads a message emblazoned on the side of the trailer attached to Santa Cruz resident Curtis Reliford’s pickup truck. Bearing slogans, pleas for compassion and four worn American flags, the trailer is hard to miss as Reliford drives across the county collecting donations and delivering much-needed assistance to victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Since Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in August 2005, Reliford and his rig have made six trips hauling food, clothing, building materials and other supplies back to his native Louisiana. He plans to continue making quarterly trips with the Follow Your Heart Action Network, an organization he founded in the aftermath of the storm.

Hurricane Katrina was one of the deadliest and costliest natural disasters in United States history, killing over 1,800 people, causing an estimated $81 billion in damage and leaving 80 percent of New Orleans flooded for weeks.

Speaking to relatives in his home state during the weeks following the catastrophe, Reliford was struck by the anger, depression and hopelessness of impoverished victims who felt they’d been abandoned by government agencies in their time of greatest need.

“A certain class of people is not cared for or respected,” Reliford said in his soft Southern accent. “It just seems like if you’re not educated or rich or climbing the corporate ladder, you don’t exist.”

Reliford settled in Santa Cruz 21 years ago after departing Louisiana to leave behind racism, bigotry and personal problems with drugs and alcohol. He says his moment of inspiration to start Follow Your Heart came a couple weeks after Katrina, following a long telephone conversation with his sister who was still in Louisiana. When he picked his daughter up from school later that day, she asked him why he seemed so angry and depressed.

“After I told her, she grabbed me, looked me in the face, and said, ‘Dad, if anybody can do anything for these people, you can do it,’” Reliford said. “That sparked me and I haven’t stopped since.”

“There’s something inside of me telling me what to do and I call it my spirit,” he added. “It’s telling me about love, compassion, honesty and unselfishness.”

Reliford and Follow Your Heart volunteers have made three of their trips to Renaissance Village, a trailer park in Baker, La., which houses over 2,000 Katrina evacuees. He said that residents there have expressed extreme frustration with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) because they feel it hasn’t done nearly enough to help them.

“FEMA is telling them one thing and doing something different,” Reliford said. “Most of the help people get has been from people like me—grassroots organizations—not the government. FEMA is doing a lot of talking but they’re not about action.”

Renaissance Village residents supported that statement, and expressed tremendous gratitude for the work Reliford has done at their trailer park.

“FEMA has given me $134 total,” said Charlotte McGee, a 52 year-old Renaissance Village occupant. “And I’m disabled, on a fixed income with six children. So I thank God for Mr. Reliford because he’s gone out of his way to bless us with things that we really need. It takes a special person to do that.”

Hurricane victims are not the only people who have been touched by Reliford’s efforts, according to Helen Isherwood, a Santa Cruz resident and Red Cross Disaster Services volunteer.

“It’s pretty much a life-changing experience for many of the people that have been down there,” said Isherwood, who has made one trip with Follow Your Heart and helped plan two others. “There are so many issues that we feel powerless to change, but when we do something like this we get some of that power back and feel like we can be proud to be Americans.”

But all of Reliford’s work for others has left him in a bit of a pinch himself. Reliford operated a landscaping business before starting Follow Your Heart, but after a couple months of directing his energy toward collecting donations, lost 32 of his 36 contracts.

“I’ve lost everything I had…I’m two steps from being homeless myself,” he said.

While Reliford plans to continue devoting himself to Follow Your Heart, there is one other job he wouldn’t mind trying.

“Man, let me be president for one day,” he said, shaking his head. “I’d turn everything off and just tell people to stop and be present with what we’re here for. Focus on that there’s a human being right next to you. It’s time to open up your heart with love, compassion and honesty.”

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