Last modified: Monday, December 5, 2005
Volunteers rebuild houses, give massages
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Dec. 5, 2005
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By Rich Powell
WIGGINS and WAVELAND, Miss. -- A few weeks after Katrina hit, Sierra Secaur and her husband, Jim, headed down to Wiggins, Miss. - a small town about 35 miles from the coast - to establish a base for the Friends Disaster Service, an outreach arm of the Friends Church in Ohio. Since then, scores of volunteers, most of them retirees, have been rotating through the work crews.
With criticism flying about the government and the Red Cross, thousands of private citizens from all across the country have been pouring into small towns ravaged Hurricane Katrina.
"We've had teams from California and all over the place," Sierra Secaur said over the sound of nails being pounded into the roofing behind her. "We did a lot of cleanup in Wiggins. There were a lot of people being left out."
That was partly why Wiggins was chosen as the focus of FDS's efforts. Secaur said that, with all the attention given to New Orleans, many of the residents in smaller towns were not getting the level of assistance they needed.
"Truthfully, that's why we're here," she said. "Our hearts are here because they really need the help."
While FDS and other church-based groups have provided some structure for volunteer efforts, not everyone who has made the trek to the disaster zone did so as part of a larger group.
Christian Smith, a Massachusetts-based chainsaw carver and yoga instructor, said he caught his first glimpse of the destruction when he rode with a buddy to Slidell, La., to distribute a truck full of supplies that had been donated by their friends. After returning to Massachusetts, it took less than a day before he knew he needed to return.
"After I got home, I was kind of like, 'Why am I home? I've got to be a part of this solution,'" he said.
So he scraped together what money he could and headed by himself to Waveland, Miss., where dozens of like-minded people congregated to organize donations, dispense hot meals and do whatever they can to help this community that was virtually wiped out. As he downed some lentils on his lunch break, he said the experience has marked a profound change in his life.
"I'm not the same person I was when I came here," he said. "It's really amazing.
"The Red Cross will always be there. FEMA will always be there. This generosity - it's only going to happen this once."
Shannon Bowler, a massage therapist from Bellingham, Wash., agreed. She said being part of a community of volunteers was a big draw for her.
"I had free time," she laughed. "I really just wanted to come help."
Bowler has set up a tent and offers free massages to workers and people that have been displaced. While she admits that it's not the same as giving people food or shelter, she said that a loving touch can be very important to people who have been through a catastrophe.
The experience has been overwhelming, Bowler said, so much that she isn't yet sure what she will take away from her days volunteering. But she has no doubt it has affected her.
Elsewhere in Waveland, a Baptist church that was demolished by the hurricane has turned into another meeting point for volunteers.
Lakeshore Baptist Church, located a few miles from the coast, was reduced to a concrete slab by Katrina. Other than that, all that was left was a pew, a podium and the church steeple, which was blown about 1,000 feet away. Members of the congregation dragged the steeple back to the site, set it upright and opened a supply distribution center around it.
Chris Vowell, a minister from Philadelphia, Miss., came down to the site to distribute about $2,500 worth of supplies that his congregation donated.
"We're going to try to come down and help with the construction," he said while stacking boxes of laundry detergent. "But we've gotten tied up with donations right now."
Vowell said his faith is what brought him down and he will continue to use whatever spare time he has to help the church and the people of Waveland.
That's the same mantra being uttered by the Secaurs back in Wiggins. Once they finish one house, they move straight on to the next.
"God put the desire in our hearts," Secaur said. "We just want other people to feel that love."
Rich Powell is a graduate student in journalism from Milwaukee, Wis.