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Supplies reach storm-hit areas

"Be there." That simple phrase is Gwen Redding's core principle.

BY CHUCK HUSTMYRE | BALDWIN, La. | October 1, 2005

"Be there." That simple phrase is Gwen Redding's core principle.

Redding is executive director of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) Sager-Brown shipping facility, which sends hundreds of tons of humanitarian aid and relief supplies annually to disaster-stricken people worldwide.

The phrase is printed at the bottom of a pair of photographs hanging in Redding's office. The pictures of disaster survivors continually remind her of UMCOR's responsibility.

"United Methodists must be there when there are one million AIDS orphans in Zimbabwe," Redding said. "United Methodists must be there when there are 1.9 million people in displaced persons camps in the Sudan. And United Methodists must be there when storms the magnitude of Katrina and Rita hit and displace more than one million people in this country."

As an example of its worldwide relief effort, the United Methodist Church has raised $42 million so far for the survivors of last year's devastating tsunami. Redding believes donations for Katrina and Rita survivors will surpass that.

Last year UMCOR's Sager-Brown depot shipped more than 500,000 pounds of relief supplies to distribution points worldwide. By the end of August 2005, UMCOR had already surpassed last year's total. Asked how far beyond that she thought this year's shipments would go, Redding said, "I'm sure we'll double it."

Sanctuary on the bayou

UMCOR's Sager-Brown complex, with its 50,000-square-foot warehouse, administrative offices, dormitories, small apartments and cafeteria, sits on the edge of Bayou Teche in Baldwin, La., less than 20 miles from the Gulf of Mexico.

Before the Civil War, the property was part of a plantation owned by John Baldwin. After the war, Baldwin sold 1,700 acres of land to The Orphans' Home Society.

In 1867, the Society built an orphanage for the children of former slaves. Later, the Society built a school, then added a Methodist church.

When financial woes struck the orphanage and school in the early 1900s, the school's director, Dr. W.D. Godman, sent the boys' choir, The Jubilee Singers, on a fund-raising tour of the Northeast. After seeing the choir perform, two Methodist women from New York state bought the school and donated it to the Methodist Women's Home Mission Society. The women's names were Mrs. Addie Sager and Mrs. C.W. Brown.

The Sager-Brown Home and Godman School remained open until 1978. When its doors closed, the remaining 28 acres and 10 brick buildings were put up for sale with an asking price of $100,000. But there were no takers and the property remained vacant for 14 years.

Born of a hurricane

When Hurricane Andrew struck Florida - and affected Louisiana - in 1992, UMCOR moved into the town of Baldwin immediately after the storm to provide disaster relief and humanitarian aid. Relief teams set up shop on the campus of the old Methodist orphanage and school.

Then UMCOR decided to move in permanently, and in 1996 opened a worldwide shipping center.

Since Katrina and Rita slammed into the Louisiana coast, the Sager-Brown facility has also become a distribution point for relief efforts, Redding said.

The massive relief effort reminds Redding of another phrase, this one from Methodist founder John Wesley: Do all the good you can.

A bucket of relief

Each day, UMCOR ships prepackaged emergency kits to disaster survivors. Every item in every kit is brand new. United Methodist churches around the world donate the material for the kits. The emergency kits include health kits, school kits, layette kits, sewing kits, bedding packs and flood buckets.

Last year UMCOR gave away more than $3 million worth of relief supplies packaged in these kits. This year the total will be close to $6 million, Redding said.

"This is the remarkable thing about UMCOR, though, one hundred percent of the money given to UMCOR for a project goes to the project," Redding said. No administrative costs are taken out of the funds donated for relief efforts.

At the cavernous Sager-Brown warehouse, volunteers check and package each emergency kit by hand. Although UMCOR is part of the United Methodist Church, its disaster relief and humanitarian aid extends across all religious, political and cultural boundaries. No religious or patriotic material of any kind is allowed in the kits.

Redding said UMCOR doesn't want to give anyone a reason to turn down their help.

Since the storms hit and Redding found herself in the middle of a disaster area, she has had to become somewhat of a disaster relief wheeler and dealer. Wednesday, she gave 3,000 flood buckets to the United Way for distribution in New Iberia, La. Thursday, she called the United Way back and asked them to send 500 of the buckets to hard-hit Franklin, La.

Redding enjoys being in the right place at the right time to help the people most in need, and to do all the good she can. "It's wonderful," she said.

Whether disaster strikes on the other side of the world or right down the road, for 65 years, UMCOR has been there to help, she added.

"I think that's what the church has to do," Redding said. "Be there."

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