Volunteers bring high energy

Volunteers at St. Paul United Methodist Church are busy sorting food donations and preparing dinner for hundreds of people.

BY HEATHER MOYER | OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss. | October 7, 2005

Volunteers at St. Paul United Methodist Church are busy sorting food donations and preparing dinner for hundreds of people.

One of the volunteers is 14-year-old Rea Dickerson Rose, a member of a Methodist church in North Carolina. "I came just to help, I wanted to help," she said.

Rose came with her grandfather, another volunteer who quickly appeared by her side. "She needed to get an understanding of what it's like to help in a disaster area and see what else is going on in the world," said Ramon Atkins, who smiled and quickly added, "And she's doing just super."

Most of the volunteers in the bustling St. Paul kitchen are from Methodist churches in North Carolina - and the food preparation is merely one aspect of the church's major response to Hurricane Katrina.

The hallways are full of people and donated supplies. The church served as an American Red Cross (ARC) shelter immediately after Katrina and then continued to operate as such when the ARC left last week.

For Mark Gehres, the operation has been overwhelming and amazing. A member of St. Paul, Gehres said after his home went undamaged in Katrina, he knew he had to do something.

"Because I didn't have to worry about my home, God stuck me here and said, 'Do something.' So I did," he said.

So Gehres stepped in as head of the church's relief efforts and has been running non-stop since the first day after the hurricane. Donations and volunteers have poured in from across the country. As Gehres paused to chat with a volunteer Tuesday morning, he was interrupted several times by people who dropped in to donate more supplies.

Telling two women from Michigan to drop off some much-needed linens in the back, he laughed, "God knows what to send when we need it."

That statement holds true for all parts of the recovery effort, with volunteers stepping in to tackle the needs as they surface. The North Carolina Methodist volunteers came to prepare and serve meals to the staff, the other volunteers, those living in the shelter and anyone else who stops in.

Outside, a small city is appearing on the lawn of the church as a fleet of tents is being put up. A line of port-o-potties sits at the back of the camp, and a site for showers is being cleared as well. Volunteers will stay in the city as they work in the region helping clean and fix homes over the hurricane recovery process.

The tent city for recovery volunteers popped up when two Houstonians drove in to help with only a trunk full of tents and a note saying that St. Paul United Methodist Church had the space.

"Neither of us had ever done anything like this before," laughed Eric Cummings of Gateway Community Church in Houston. "But you can see how God is putting it all together. God's making connections. It's hard to believe that only four weeks ago this was an empty field."

Once Cummings and his Lutheran cohort arrived, more tents came in from as far away as Russia and China, and the volunteers started arriving as well. On a recent afternoon, a team of students from Louisville's Southern Baptist Theological Seminary helped assemble the tents - which will be fully air conditioned.

"This is the first of many trips for us," said Brent Parker, a seminary student. "There are 40 of us here this week, but we hope to send another two to four crews over time."

The seminarians aren't the only students pitching in, either. In the project management trailer overlooking the tent city is Matt Thomas. Thomas should have been a first year political science student at Tulane University in New Orleans this fall, but Hurricane Katrina changed life around for him. With the fall semester canceled, he sought plans elsewhere.

"I wanted to help, and I got connected up with one of the Houston churches that helped start the tent city," said Thomas.

Thomas and fellow volunteer Mary Cruff are staffing the phones, both finding families who need volunteer help and fielding calls from families who come in for assistance. "We're matching volunteers to the needs," said Cruff.

Because of the overall success of the St. Paul site, representatives from Jackson County, ARC, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency designated the site as the official volunteer center for Jackson County. Other churches in the area are on-board and helping supply whatever is needed as well.

Cruff said she hopes the volunteers will continue to come in droves as they have for the past four weeks. "We need the momentum to keep going and not have this volunteer energy die down," she explained. "We'll be out here for a long time."

Mike Malkemes, Cummings' other Houston church cohort, nodded in agreement.

"We've got all the work they can handle."

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