Although it may be hard to realize, the vast majority of homes and lives on the Gulf Coast have not been rebuilt in the two years since Hurricane Katrina roared ashore. From the first days following the storm, volunteers have played a major role in relief and recovery efforts. The use of volunteer labor is the only way thousands of residents will be able to replace or repair damaged and destroyed homes.
The volunteers are still needed as much as ever and, sadly, the flow has slowed to a trickle. That’s why Camp Coast Care is issuing an urgent call for volunteers to come on down. The camp is a ministry of Lutheran Episcopal Services in Mississippi and was in the area immediately following the tragedy.
“Camp Coast Care started as a relief center and was staffed by medical volunteers and first responders. Volunteers came from day one,” says camp director and Episcopal priest Luther Ott. “The first phase of giving out food and clothing ended and we made the transition over time to recovery mode.”
Trial and error
He says converting a relief center to a construction company and home for volunteers was done by trial and error with no instructions. The Episcopal Relief and Development Fund provides operating money and provided funds for the construction of the volunteer dormitory. It’s located on the campus of Coast Episcopal School and will belong to the school when Camp Coast Care closes.
Ott describes the dorm as a wonderful volunteer hotel that can accommodate 80 volunteers per night with women’s and men’s sides and showers. The only problem: the facility is not filled to capacity. Last week there were only seven volunteers there, just 13 this week and none for the rest of the month.
“Our mission is to build and rebuild homes on the western end of the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” he says. “It is harder now to get volunteers. As we get farther away from the storm, we are less on the minds of people in other parts of the country. We need to get the word out that the recovery stage is just beginning.”
All over the nation
Volunteers have come from all over the country, including Sparkman “Sparky” Witte, a 57-year-old general contractor from Mt. Pleasant, S.C., who’s been to the Coast 13 times. He made his first trip in November 2005.
He’s from an area that has also known the devastation of hurricanes and says he’ll continue coming to Mississippi as long as they aren’t hit by a hurricane on the South Carolina coast.
“We love helping people. We see the need and want to be a part of the rebuilding in a small way,” he says. “We went through Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and people came from all over to help us.”
Witte comes with a group from St. Andrews Episcopal Church, a 3,000-member church that gives donations to fund the trips and to buy building materials. “We have a big church and are very blessed,” he said. “Everyone comes back after the first time down here. We get a lot out of it but that’s not why we come.”
‘We’ll keep coming’
Having lived through a major hurricane, he and the other South Carolina volunteers try to encourage Mississippi residents. “People in other parts of the country think it’s over and are coming less,” he says. “We’ll keep coming.”
As the owner of a business that does renovations, repairs and roofing, Witte — after 34 years in business — is able to get away to volunteer. Work during the early trips consisted of gutting and mucking out houses. Now he and other volunteers are hanging sheetrock, painting and building houses from the ground up. He says they couldn’t do it without Camp Coast Care.
Ott says the camp is looking for volunteers who can do carpentry, drywall, painting, plumbing and electrical work. “Now’s the time for skilled volunteers, but we can use anyone with a heart to work,” he said. “We want to emphasize that all faithful people are invited to come help.”
‘Building is our only mission’
Most volunteers stay one week. They come on Sunday and have an orientation before heading out to work on a project Monday morning. In the last seven weeks, 20 projects have been completed. Some projects take a few days and some are ongoing for months. The types of projects vary and may be putting down flooring, installing cabinets, painting or other repairs.
The camp asks for $20 per day donations to cover food and housing to allow all the ministry’s resources to be put into building projects.
“Building is our only mission now and most materials are supplied through grants,” Ott says. “Thousands of people are not back in their homes and the work is far from over.
“It’s been said that the problems on the Coast are so massive only God can fix them. God is fixing them through the hearts, hands and feet of people who come. We’ve become God’s instruments of healing. We’re the way God will fix it.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.