Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Two years of Katrina recovery come to life with TV series

New Web site, cable show feature the stories of hurricane relief volunteers

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Steve Friedman (center) of Potomac hashes out Web site design issues with Churchill High School volunteers Roxana Shamsazar (left), Alex Jamis, Elyse Toplin (seated) and Aditya Kolhekar. Working with Web site design expert Dennis Courtney (behind Friedman), the volunteers are raising awareness about Hurricane Katrina volunteers and the work that remains to be done in the devastated Gulf Coast area via the new Web site and a television series airing next week.
This story was corrected on Aug. 23 from its print version.

Steve Friedman of North Potomac is marking the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina by bringing to television the stories of the volunteers who continue to turn up, hammer in hand, to help rebuild the still-devastated Gulf Coast.

Last year, on the first anniversary of the disaster, he traveled to New Orleans and Mississippi to film the stories of volunteers for ‘‘Travel Television,” a new series premiering Aug. 29 on Access Montgomery, channel 21.

‘‘Almost to a person, the [volunteers] said it was a life-changing experience and the most important thing they’d ever done,” Friedman said of the cross-section of people he met, from church group members to retirees to college students.

But when he returned home, the 30-year Voice of America employee realized that there was no one Web site or television show that served as an outlet for those stories and experiences.

So with 30 volunteer interviews completed, he decided to create six half-hour shows to tell the world about what’s been accomplished, and also, what more needs to be done.

‘‘It’s going to take five to 10 years to rebuild, so there’s an ongoing need for volunteers,” he said. ‘‘The focus of the show is to get people to volunteer in the Gulf Coast.”

The shows include interviews with government officials, travel tips and links to helpful sites for volunteers. His daughter Abby Friedman, 21, a public relations major at the University of Maryland in College Park, provides the on-camera narration that links the pieces.

‘‘This is better reality television than anything else you might watch. It’s real, it’s people doing good and encouraging others to do the same,” he said.

The three volunteers featured on the first show share stories so inspiring that his daughter Elizabeth Friedman, 23, decided to volunteer for the rebuilding effort in December.

‘‘The stories are so moving they get to you, and that’s the whole point,” she said. ‘‘It motivates you to get involved.”

A Winston Churchill High School staff member, she recruited teens interested in helping her father in the logical next step to building a network for volunteers: a Web site called www.projectkatrinavolunteers.net.

‘‘They’ve been amazing, these kids, the way they’ve stuck with this project,” said Dennis Courtney, president of the nonprofit Capital PC Users Group, who volunteered to help the students build the site.

‘‘There’s no air conditioning on at the school, so we sweat for two to three hours every Thursday night in front of these computers,” he said of the 10 student volunteers.

Vikrum Sheorey, 16, of Potomac said he learned plenty about computers while helping to build the site that will post volunteer blogs, the television show and links to volunteer organizations.

But he also learned more about the hurricane’s long-lasting impact on the Gulf Coast.

‘‘Like most people, I thought the area was pretty settled now, that things were back to normal. Now I see they need a lot more help down there,” he said.

Jeff Ochfeld, 16, of Potomac said that even after the site is built, he plans to stay involved.

‘‘As long as they need me to post things to the Web site, I’ll do it. Hopefully, it’ll persuade people to go down to help out and raise awareness,” he said.

Friedman believes the television series could expand some time in the future to include ways to combine tourism with volunteerism.

‘‘There’s tremendous interest out there for people that want to help build a school, for instance, while on vacation in Costa Rica,” he said. ‘‘People want to find a way to give.”

Watch the show

‘‘Travel Television,” a magazine-format show featuring the stories of Hurricane Katrina volunteers, premieres at 8:30 p.m. Aug. 29 on Channel 21. For more information, go to www.traveltelevision.org. A new Web site featuring volunteer blogs and informative links for volunteers can be found at www.projectkatrinavolunteers.net.