Outreach programs offer help in Gulf

From medical services to personal services, programs are lifeline for Katrina survivors.

BY NANCY HOGLAND | NEW ORLEANS, La. | May 18, 2007


Gulf Coast resident gets blood pressure checked by volunteer from Convoy of Hope.

Gulf Coast youngster gets a free haircut from a Convoy of Hope volunteer.

Each day, hours before the sun starts to rise over the horizon, cars begin to line up at a free medical and dental clinic in east New Orleans. By the time the gates open at 6 a.m., the line stretches more than one-half mile.

The clinic, and other personal service outreach programs, remain a lifeline for survivors of Hurricane Katrina more than a year and a half after the storm.

"Some of the people we treat are chronically poor," said Bill Horan, president of Operation Blessing which runs the medical and dental clinic. "They were poor before Katrina and they’re still poor today."

Many of the people are what Horan describes as the "newly made poor."

"Before Hurricane Katrina, they had homes, they had normal lives and they had jobs with regular paychecks and medical insurance," he explained. "But now they have no home, or they're living in a borrowed FEMA home, they have no job, they have no income and they've used up their savings. They're left with nothing except their ongoing illnesses and, plain and simple, they need their medicine to survive."

Clinic doctors typically see 80 to 100 patients each day and write between 250 and 300 prescriptions during those visits, Horan said. Since opening the doors of the medical clinic one year ago, approximately 30,000 patients have been treated.

At Impact Ministries, meantime, the focus is on meeting the psychological needs of community members by offering after-school programs for children and providing counseling, especially for domestic abuse cases, said Toni Smith, director of the interdenominational ministry.

"The families have been cramped in these little FEMA trailers for 20 months now and it's wearing on them," she said. "My husband and I stayed in one for a few months while we volunteered down there and I can attest to the fact that they're tiny.

"It’s bad enough to lose everything you own, but then to live with your family squeezed into a little trailer that barely has enough room to turn around makes any situation seem worse," Smith said.

The ministry also tries to provide another type of pick-me-up to families by scheduling evenings of Christian music and entertainment, something that she said has been greatly appreciated.

"These people need to have some time to simply relax and enjoy themselves," Smith said. "It's rough living in these conditions day after day after day. They also need to be reminded that there is a promise for a better future so they don’t lose hope."

Dan Brown, the pastor at Anchor Assembly of God in Bayou LaBatre, Ala., said that was exactly why a group of pastors from throughout the Gulf Coast region joined forces with Convoy of Hope to host God Cares community outreach events.

"We just try to give people one day where they don't have to worry about anything," Brown said. "We serve hot meals. We provide free haircuts and other beauty services. We bring in doctors and nurses to do free health screenings, we offer job placement assistance, we have children's events and carnivals - and we pray with them.

"Our goal is to show these people that God loves them, that we love them and that we haven't forgotten about them and their plight," he said. "We hope that they can stop by, forget about all their troubles for the day and then take a couple bags of groceries home when it's over."

Ron Showers, director of the outreach events, said Convoy of Hope initially got involved in the Gulf Coast immediately after Katrina struck in August 2005.

"We knew then that people could easily be overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all," Showers said. "By maintaining a presence there, we're showing people that God cares and we care about them and want to help meet their needs.

"We also knew going into this that it wasn't going to be a short-term project. We've been holding these community events for two years and it looks like we'll be able to continue to provide them for another two," he said.

More than 1,400 people attended a recent weekend event in LaBatre. That same weekend, a crowd of about 700 attended another God Cares outreach in Gautier, Miss. The largest response so far has been in Moss Point, Miss., where 3,700 people showed up.

Convoy launched the God Cares program in early 2006. According to agency figures, last year's events drew some 20,000 people in 10 cities from Biloxi, Miss., to eastern Texas. They were served by 1,724 volunteers from 274 different churches and organizations. More than 350,000 pounds of groceries were distributed at the events. Another 13 similar events are planned this year.

"The only solution to this problem is time," Brown said. "Eventually these cities will be rebuilt and people will be able to resume their normal lives. However, in the meantime, they need all the help they can get. I just hope the rest of the country will continue to care enough to stay involved."


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