- The Washington Times - Monday, June 28, 2010

For the Katz family, the time of need arose as mother Carole was dying of ovarian cancer.

For Amy Gibson, it came when her military husband was deployed overseas three days after she gave birth to their third child.

For Sue Crawford, it came when her fiance, Patrick Durkin, was slammed by a wave at Ocean City, breaking his neck and leaving him “pretty much like Christopher Reeve, paralyzed from the shoulders down.”

A free website called www.lotsahelpinghands.com is enabling tens of thousands of families in distress to create private communities of friends and family members to assist them with their needs.

The website allows a family “coordinator” to do what they would otherwise be doing by “e-mail and phone-tag” — keep track of appointments, meals, daily tasks and who has volunteered to do what.

Today, some 30,000 families have created private communities of friends through the Lotsa Helping Hands website, said Brooks Kenny, chief marketing officer. It is free to families, as nonprofit groups and businesses support the site as partners, she said. The communities are secured and private — people join by invitation only.

As one might imagine, this innovation was born out of travail.

Several years ago, when his wife was sick, Massachusetts high-tech entrepreneur Barry Katz kept track of life for her and their teen daughters on a whiteboard in his office. But even with this giant “memo pad,” he found it hard to coordinate their family’s needs with the many offers of help that came their way.

One day after Mrs. Katz passed away, Mr. Katz found himself studying their whiteboard, covered with phone numbers, appointments, errands and offers of help.

“What I really wanted to do, I decided, was to make our family’s struggles count for something,” Mr. Katz wrote in a recent issue of Guideposts magazine

He worked with friend Hal Chapel to design a free online service “that would help other families overwhelmed by a crisis.”

The website’s name came from daughter Julia Katz. At her bat mitzvah, which her mother attended, Julia had talked about “lots of helping hands,” Mr. Katz wrote.

“Lotsa” communities can be created and dissolved easily, and revolve around all kinds of issues: parents who need help caring for their newborn triplets, military families caring for loved ones who came home wounded, families caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease or cancer.

Some communities last only a few months.

Mrs. Gibson’s friends, for instance, used the website to coordinate a few dozen people during her husband’s seven-month deployment. When he came home last summer, “we threw a big party” to thank everyone, and closed the community, she told me.

Other communities, such as Mr. Durkin’s, are intended to be long-term.

Skilled nurses tend to Mr. Durkin’s medical needs, but his online community of almost 50 people work to keep everything else running smoothly, such as walking the dog every day and cooking meals, said Ms. Crawford, who administers the site with her adult daughter.

The website eases the discomfort of people wanting to help but not knowing how, and of families needing help but not knowing how to ask, she explained. “It just puts the need up there and lets people check and say what they can do.”

“We are learning the new normal,” she said. “The reaching out of other people and their kindness and joy has kept us going… . We are very grateful,” she said.

I mentioned to Mrs. Gibson that it was nice to see the Internet used to break barriers and connect those in need, and she agreed with me.

“So much on the Internet, to me, is a lot of fluff,” she said. “But this is an incredible application. I don’t know any other way you could organize” things, especially with people across the country.

“I think every family could use this site at one point or another, whether it’s for a month or a year,” she added. “It widens the circle.”

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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