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Volunteers brighten lives

On a warm morning last week, Debbie Sullivan and the Rev. Nelson Roth watched a team of Amish disaster volunteers scale a tree leaning precariously over a home.

BY HEATHER MOYER | GULFPORT, Miss. | October 3, 2005

"There is grieving, but there is also encouragement."

—Rev. Nelson Roth

On a warm morning last week, Debbie Sullivan and the Rev. Nelson Roth watched a team of Amish disaster volunteers scale a tree leaning precariously over a home.

"This is unbelievable," said Nelson, pastor of Gulfhaven Mennonite Church.

After hooking the tree up to a skid loader, one volunteer took a chainsaw to the trunk as the skid loader backed up. The tree fell to the earth with a loud thump - completely avoiding the home.

"They're amazing," said the homeowner, who declined to give his name. The volunteer team has been in town since Monday helping move giant trees blown down by Hurricane Katrina. With smiles and contagious enthusiasm, the volunteers bustled around the homeowner's lawn, cutting up huge tree trunks and moving them to the curb.

Gulfhaven Mennonite Church is housing the volunteers, as it has been for other volunteer teams coming through town to help. The church is also home to piles of donated relief supplies, signs of generosity sent in from Mennonite churches nationwide. Sullivan, a member of the church who's heading up the relief effort there, said Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) also showed up right after the hurricane to lend their support.

Yet Gulfhaven's ability to house volunteers and supplies is now threatened by a damaged roof. Tarps cover one end of the church and its roof, and Sullivan said the wind and rain from Hurricane Rita just made it worse. They found out this week that the roof and ceiling - both only a few years old - will require significant work to repair.

Roth and Sullivan said they hope other parts of the church will still be able to house the volunteers while the roof over the sanctuary is worked on.

They remain hopeful about their impact on the recovery work, though. "We will continue to help the community as they come to us, and we'll spread the word that we're able to help," said Sullivan. Volunteers have already helped put tarps on damaged roofs and now the focus is on cleaning up debris and trees.

Many of the church members themselves suffered damage, including Peggy Stiglets-Ward. She stayed in her home with her husband during Katrina and said it was a frightening experience.

"I stayed through Camille, so we decided to stay through Katrina," she said, leaning against a newly donated gas stove in the sanctuary.

The experience was a scary one. Stiglets-Ward said as parts of the roof came off during the storm, she quickly hurried from room to room moving valuables. She stopped when it got too dangerous. "The Lord tapped me on the shoulder and said 'It's just stuff,'" said Stiglets-Ward. "Then I looked outside and saw our roof and insulation in the backyard."

Sullivan said no one in the 150-member church went without damage, and eight of the parishioners are unable to live in their homes.

Stiglets-Ward is in good spirits, and Rev. Nelson said much of the community is the same way despite the destruction. "They're going through the normal grieving process," he said. "There is grieving, but there's also encouragement. People are resilient. Everybody's saying 'we'll get through this.'"

Nelson and Sullivan are committed to helping anyone in need, and say that the continued outpouring of support via volunteers and donations from everywhere only boosts their efforts.

MDS is active throughout the Gulf region. Up in Ellisville, Jim Scott was helping match up families in need with out-of-town volunteers who came equipped with chainsaws and heavy machinery to remove trees downed by the hurricane. "We've helped get trees off roofs and get other roofs tarped," said Scott.

Standing in front of a home, Scott points out a large hole knocked into the roof and part of the front brick wall. "There is just a terrific amount of tree damage down here," he explained. "This is just one of hundreds and hundreds like it."

Last week's volunteers were from a business in Philadelphia, and they were busy moving through a dense, debris-littered yard. Scott said this type of work will continue for some time before the rebuild process begins. Long-term recovery committees in communities and counties have to be in place for MDS to be able to be involved in the repair and reconstruction of homes.

"There has to be a procedure first, we're still in the investigative stages of all this and seeing how we fit in," he said. "But we will go to the ones that are in the most need and help families that cannot do it themselves."

For Nelson and Sullivan back at Gulf Haven, the focus is the same. The two say the church is called to do this type of work.

"It's us doing our part in being the body of Jesus Christ to one another," said Nelson.

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