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'Hardest job in my life'

This summer Chuck Manning found himself fixing a roof in Abbeville, La., in heat so intense it melted the rubber soles of his sneakers.

BY SUSAN KIM | ALBANY, Ga. | August 4, 2003

"Albany received help from lots of folks, locally and out of town."

—Derrell McGee

This summer Chuck Manning found himself fixing a roof in Abbeville, La., in heat so intense it melted the rubber soles of his sneakers.

"The roofing was so hot the tar would stick to you," Manning remembered.

Manning and 25 others from the First United Methodist Church in Albany, Ga., braved the heat this summer on a mission to Louisiana born out of their memories of their own summer disaster.

In July 1994, Hurricane Alberto dumped 17 inches of rain on parts of Georgia, flooding the Flint and Ocmulgee River Basins, and inundating Albany.

Derrell McGee's home was flooded then. And now each year he travels with Manning and others from his church to a post-disaster site to help others rebuild. McGee said he sees it as a way of giving back to all the volunteers that helped him make a recovery.

"It's a way to serve other people," he said. "Albany received help from lots of folks, locally and out of town."

Becky Boyd, who coordinates the church's yearly trip to help disaster survivors, said the mission has attracted growing enthusiasm. "This grew out of our desire to in some way respond to the thousands of volunteers who rebuilt our community after the great flood of 1994. It's now one of the most exciting ministries in our church," she said.

And residents in Abbeville were glad to have some help. Ten months after Hurricane Lili unleashed its fury across southern Louisiana, many people there are still in need of help, said Sarah Schoeffler, director of the Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church's disaster recovery program.

Supported by the United Methodist Committee on Relief, Schoeffler has been helping those most affected by Hurricane Lili's winds in October 2002. "As I look at our families that we are working with, we find them to be the elderly on fixed income, the single parents and low-income families that are greatly affected by disaster," she said.

The volunteers from Georgia helped replace the roof and repair electrical wiring on an elderly man's home. And one volunteer found a meaningful friendship with the homeowner.

Seventy-six-year-old Pat Murphy said the man invited volunteers to make themselves at home. "I had a lot of nice long chats with the old gentleman. We had a lot in common," said Murphy.

Murphy also became known for two additional things on the trip: cutting ridge cap after ridge cap so the roof shingles could be attached, and lobbing water bottles up to team members on the roof. "I was the only one with the right underhanded throw," he laughed.

Chuck Manning called Murphy – his friend and fellow volunteer – "a frustrated quarterback."

"He sure could pitch those water bottles," Manning said.

Murphy, who has been a member at First United Methodist Church for 50 years, said he plans to be on hand for next year's volunteer trip, wherever they might go. "I need one of those bumper stickers that says 'I refuse to grow up,' " he said.

Manning said that he enjoys Murphy’s jokes – and also the deeper blessings of helping disaster survivors. "Every night I thank God for my blessings and I ask Him to present opportunities for me to make me a better Christian. I believe this trip became one of those opportunities."

Replacing the roof, he added, "was the hardest job I've ever had in my life."

Schoeffler said she needs more people like Manning and his team. Her program has helped 155 families, and has 179 families left to help. "There have been 912 volunteers working 23,232 hours, valued at $20 per hour," she calculated, "showing an in-kind value to south Louisiana of $464,640."

Volunteers contribute not only physical labor, they also give the labor of love, she said, exemplified by Murphy befriending the elderly homeowner. "It is only through the compassion of the church that many are healed and brought to recovery," Schoeffler said.

She described the extent of the vulnerability among the families she is helping. "As trees in the small community of Abbeville were cleared away from the debris-filled streets, from yards and from atop homes, we found a family of nine making due in a small 2-bedroom trailer," she said. "Just when they had planned to add onto to their tiny home, the back section was totally demolished by a huge tree. One of the children is in a wheel chair," she said.

Schoeffler is also helping people in the bayous south of Houma, La. "We have worked with a family that makes a living by fishing and shrimping," she said. "Because of the poor season they had to drop their insurance payments – four months before Lili destroyed their home."

Southern Louisiana needs more help, she urged.

"I need volunteers," she said, "And I need construction people that know how to lead volunteers, and people that can go out and make estimates."

She has had some local volunteer help, but the needs are still too great to be handled locally. "I just want volunteers across the country to know there's a still disaster down here," she said.

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