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Disaster volunteers cite faith

Volunteering after disaster can change the course of your life - especially when you're a teenager.

BY SUSAN KIM | CLYDE, N.C. | August 2, 2005

"We're representing not just the United Methodist Church but the church in general."

—Jackie Bolden

Volunteering after disaster can change the course of your life - especially when you're a teenager.

Eighteen-year-old Lisa Bellos said she’ll never forget a volunteer mission trip to Mississippi, where she helped repair flood-damaged homes. "That was mostly painting," she said. "We were painting this man's house. He was elderly, and I think he had something like 24 grandkids. The whole time we were working, he sat up in the house or somewhere else. But when we were done, he brought his chair out, and he sat down in that chair in the yard right in front of the house, and he looked so proud."

For Cliff Lu, also 18, it's volunteering at disaster sites that cemented his ambition to become a pastor. "I like helping people less fortunate than myself," he said. "I'd rather take my time off and help share that time with someone who actually needs it. When I was in Minnesota after a disaster, I met this quadriplegic named Cody. It shaped my future. I plan to go to seminary and become a pastor."

Both teens are in western North Carolina this week, helping to repair homes that were damaged in flooding from back-to-back storms in September. They traveled to the mountains of western North Carolina in vans, driving for two days from the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Illinois.

Are people like this "the hands and feet" of God? Jackie Bolden thinks so. She's the casework manager and volunteer team coordinator at the United Methodist Disaster Recovery Center in Clyde, N.C.

There are 62 volunteers in town this week, said Bolden, from different denominations, states, and walks of life. They're dotted around the area, repairing roofs and flooding, ripping out ruined drywall, and getting to know residents who have become disaster survivors.

Bolden believes disaster recovery has given people in this area a different perspective on what the church does. "We know we're not representing ourselves," she said. "We're representing not just the United Methodist Church but the church in general. And we take that seriously. We're the hands and feet of God."

Wayne Green, a volunteer from the Oak Ridge Presbyterian Church in North Carolina, said he resonated with Bolden’s reflections. "Jesus Christ was a servant," he said. "And here this week we are servants, I think, in the way that God intends."

Green said he is trying to emphasize to his home congregation how important volunteer trips are as part of a person's faith. He has been to Mexico to repair housing, and now he said he'd also like to find more local mission opportunities, too. "When people come back from a mission trip, they have a certain momentum," he said. "Sending them back out on a local trip can keep that spark going.

"I think when someone volunteers like that, they're immersed in the forge of God. When they come back, it's time to strike - time to send them out on another mission."

It doesn't matter what the size of the disaster, he added, because "the worst disaster is any disaster that's been forgotten."

From teenagers to senior citizens, from first-time volunteers to seasoned post-disaster travelers, they are coming through the United Methodist Disaster Recovery Center, where they're matched up with residents whose homes need repair.

But rebuilding homes isn't all the recovery center does. The center has worked with 157 families - and new cases are still surfacing, Bolden said. "They have had all sorts of needs - some needed to have their homes completely rebuilt. Others needed home repairs. Some people needed appliances. Some needed help in understanding how to access government funds. There's a big variety of needs."

Kathy Warren, a local volunteer who is representing the Presbytery of North Carolina Disaster Response Team, said disaster recovery in her town has changed the way churches work across denominations with each other. "Churches didn't do that as much before," she said. "I don't see that we ever had a reason to. But now, well, I feel the way that bumper sticker says, 'God's too big for just one religion.' "

Warren said she knows and loves her community - but it isn't always easy to help people who live in this neck of the woods. "There are a lot of elderly people here. They have always given and given, and they never had to ask for help. Some of them have told me that it's not getting through the flood that was the hardest thing to do - but asking for help is the hardest thing they've ever had to do."

Up the street, longtime Clyde resident Miss Wanda said she was glad she did accept help from volunteers. She has been back in her house for a week, which has been gutted and rebuilt on the inside. Tony Oberley, a licensed contractor who now works for the United Methodist Disaster Recovery Center, drops in to check on her.

When he had the opportunity to work for the recovery center, Oberley said, he temporarily folded up his business and got to work helping disaster survivors. "I remember I was helping a pastor fix up a house years ago, and I said to him, 'wouldn't it be great to do this for a living?' Well, now I am, at least for awhile."

Bolden, Oberley and other recovery leaders estimate recovery here could take up to three years.

For now, each day brings a new understanding of what faith means. Miss Wanda beams at Tony Oberley. "I think people like you are God's 'go out and do,' people," she said. "I finally now understand that."

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