O'Neal takes action after visit to Louisiana

Updated: September 11, 2005, 11:44 AM ET
Associated Press

MIAMI -- Sweat dripping from his head as he worked in the midday South Florida sun, Shaquille O'Neal loaded the last item into a cavernous 18-wheel trailer and pointed to the generous stranger.

AP Photo/Alan DiazShaquille O'Neal loaded tractor trailers with donations on Saturday.

"Give the man a hug," he urged his children, who quickly obliged. "Tell him thank you."

For the last week, O'Neal and his wife have coordinated efforts to help those in Louisiana and Mississippi whose lives were ripped apart by Hurricane Katrina. And Saturday, O'Neal was on the front line, personally accepting medical items, toiletries, clothes and other items from those inclined to help.

The tractor-trailers hired by the O'Neal family are expected to begin rolling Tuesday toward Baton Rouge, La. -- where O'Neal, the Miami Heat center, attended LSU.

"I commend everybody who's helping out in some way," O'Neal said. "Whether it's monetarily or going to the stores and buying cases of water, bundles of ice ... there's a lot of people chipping in, and my hat goes off to every American and non-American that's helping."

O'Neal spent two days in Louisiana shortly after the storm struck, returning home deeply moved by what he saw. And donating money, he said, simply wouldn't be enough.

So for several days, he and his wife Shaunie have teamed with the El Dorado furniture stores in South Florida and urged people to give whatever was possible. The response, Shaunie O'Neal said, has been overwhelming.

A warehouse commandeered to store the donations is nearly filled to capacity. There's 10,000 gallons of water, piles of diapers, peroxide, personal items and clothing, plus even some donations of refrigerators and beds -- which will be used to help furnish 400 apartments the O'Neals' plan to rent for refugees in Dallas and other areas.

"The refrigerators and beds weren't expected," Shaunie O'Neal said. "But they definitely can be used. They'll definitely come in handy."

The O'Neals are unclear what will exactly happen once the trucks leave South Florida. They're finding that the process of distributing items throughout the ravaged region is perhaps the most difficult part of the plan.

Red Cross

Shaunie O'Neal said she's been told that the trucks, when they arrive in Louisiana, will be emptied for inspection and the items will be sent to various locations -- depending on what is needed where, and logistics in place for the distribution. She fears it could be a lengthy process.

"It's just frustrating," Shaunie O'Neal said. "All you're trying to do is help and get help to people in need and you see these people on TV just begging for help and whoever, I'm not going to point any fingers, but ... it's very, very, very difficult."

While the 12-time All-Star was manning the dropoff location, Edesio Biffoni, a Swiss man who works in finance and now lives in the Miami suburb of Coconut Grove, came with his sports-utility vehicle loaded with car seats, baby strollers, clothing, toys and other items.

Other citizens -- all unknowing they were about to meet O'Neal -- brought cases of soap and deodorant, plus toothbrushes, toothpaste, baby wipes and numerous other items.

"Everybody should be helping out. ... There's people who need these things more now," Biffoni said, moments after O'Neal gave the man a firm handshake and whispered appreciative words.

O'Neal said the damage he saw during his visit to Louisiana was unimaginable. So he returned home "to devise a plan," he said, and urged his friends and corporations he works with to provide immediate help.

"I'm just doing what I've been taught by my parents to do," O'Neal said. "This is the right thing to do, and I'm trying to urge other people to do it."


Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press