By Paula Schlueter Ross
NEW ORLEANS — Christian volunteers have made a big difference on the Gulf Coast in the three years since back-to-back hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed thousands of homes and changed forever the lives of a million people.
Residents and local government officials here “will tell you: If it was not for the church, there would be no recovery,” says Rev. Kurtis Schultz, president of the Synod’s Southern District.
But, Schultz adds, that recovery is “continuing” and far from over, and more volunteers are still needed to lend a helping hand.
After three years, the two hospitals in the city’s 9th Ward still haven’t reopened, and, although there are rehabbed buildings in various stages of repair, they sit alongside abandoned homes with boarded-up windows, “For Sale” signs, and piles of debris at the curb.
“We know the work could continue for another seven years,” says Schultz, and, as long as the volunteers and funding hold out, the Southern District, he says, will continue its disaster response.
That response includes managing two properties that provide food and lodging for out-of-town volunteers — Camp Restore, which opened here in New Orleans in October 2006, and Camp Biloxi in Biloxi, Miss., which began housing volunteers a week after Katrina, in September 2005, as a ministry of Lutheran Disaster Response.
To date, the two camps have welcomed more than 22,000 clean-up volunteers — some of whom have returned again and again to help out.
Rev. Luke Timm, associate pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Rochester, Mich., brought 16 youth-group kids to Camp Restore last year. This summer, 29 teenagers from St. John signed up for the trip, largely because of how rewarding the first experience had been.
“I don’t care about how many houses we build, how much Sheetrock we put up, how many houses we gut, or how many lives we change down here, we are 10 times more blessed [by the experience],” Timm says.
Michael Hansen, 15, who installed drywall for the first time this summer as a volunteer with Timm’s group, said it felt good to help others. “It feels like you’re doing something important,” he said.
Brenda Johnson, the head cook at Camp Restore, had five-and-a-half feet of water in her New Orleans home after the storms. Thanks to volunteers, Johnson got back into her refurbished home in February, around her 55th birthday, and says she “feels like a queen” because “it is gorgeous.”
“I love every volunteer that comes here,” Johnson said. “And I hope they continue to come and lift everybody’s spirits … that’s what they have done for a lot of people.”
Volunteers at both Southern District camps have helped almost 2,000 families get back into their homes to date, but 3,000 more are currently on waiting lists.
“We were one of the first faith-based groups working here, and [we] continue to be here long after many others have left the area or closed,” said John Coyle, director of Camp Biloxi.
But, he adds, “we have many more houses to finish than we have completed. I think we will be at this for many more years.”
Both camps offer dormitory-style housing and three meals a day. Volunteers who use the facilities are encouraged to contribute a suggested donation of $25 each, per day, to offset costs, which are actually about twice that figure, according to staff.
Work groups typically arrive on a Sunday, work Monday through Friday, and leave for home on Saturday. Construction experience is not necessary, but it’s ideal if each team includes at least one skilled worker.
Most important, says Walter Schmudlach, a project manager who has been at Camp Restore for almost two years, you have to “come with the right heart.” Schmudlach helps train volunteer teams at the camp, and says he is “always impressed” by the quality — and quantity — of their work.
“The volunteers are the crux of the whole thing,” he said, and have made a difference “big time.”
Doing a “mission trip” through Camp Restore or Camp Biloxi is pretty easy, says Timm, since food, lodging, and tools are a “package deal” and all you have to bring is “yourself and your work clothes.”
“They’ve got everything you need down here to make a difference,” he added, and to let those who still need help “know that they’re not forgotten.”
For more information, or to schedule a volunteer group, contact:
- Camp Restore at (888) 248-2636 or visit www.camprestore.org.
- Camp Biloxi at (228) 594-0008 or visit www.campbiloxi.org.
Posted July 24, 2008