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Volunteers bring holiday spirit

One of the Rev. Nelson Roth's church families got word of a fantastic Christmas gift.

BY HEATHER MOYER | GULFPORT,Miss. | December 24, 2005

One of the Rev. Nelson Roth's church families got word of a fantastic Christmas gift this week - a new home.

In an area hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, Roth's Gulfhaven Mennonite Church has been helping affected families as best it can. The news came down earlier this week that an out-of-town builder who had wanted to give something to the recovery found a way to do it.

"He manufactures pre-built homes in another state," said Roth. "And we've identified a candidate for one of his homes, a young couple who lived in an apartment that was destroyed. The builder is going to build a home and bring it in for them. It's a major contribution."

Roth said volunteer crews will help lay the foundation and erect the home, and he expects the home to arrive as early as February. "This is very exciting."

That's just one example of the generosity that's been heaped upon the Gulfhaven congregation since Katrina struck. During the cleanup phase, Roth said more than 150 volunteers from 12 states helped out. The church has received more than $100,000 in unsolicited donations - 100% of which Roth said is going directly to local hurricane recovery. Mennonite Disaster Service helped the church formulate a recovery plan. Now three weeks into the repair and rebuilding phase, work crews are lining up to lend a hand for the families in need.

"We sent out letters and communication to the congregation about the opportunity for those with irrecoverable losses to come forward - so people were given the chance to say they needed help," said Roth. "And now we have 19 projects to work on."

Volunteer crews are fixing roofs, putting up new drywall and more -whatever they are asked to do. And some volunteer crews are using their work time as a Christmas gift.

"I feel like it's the best gift I could've given my kids, to come down here," said Ted Williams of Walnut Hill Mennonite Church. Williams is leading up a work crew - which includes his children - from his Goshen, Ind.-based church. They spent the entire week leading up to Christmas helping Gulfhaven families.

"It's a wonderful gift to those who came down here with us and to those down here whom we're helping as well."

This trip is Williams' third trip down to help Gulfhaven Mennonite Church. He's had no problems recruiting crews each time, adding that he has friends and family who all ask when his next trip is. "People want to do what they can," said Williams. "Some give us supplies to bring down, some give money or time."

This week's Walnut Hill work crew ranges in age from 17 to 70. In only four days, the team has put up two new roofs, replaced drywall, fixed several ceilings and helped level a home affected by flooding.

"We're just a bunch of volunteers down here doing what we can."

Roth said the volunteers' generosity is overwhelming for the families. "One of the homes volunteers helped in the first week was in a very bad state," he explained. "The drywall was soaked. The crews came in and re-drywalled her house in one day. They even put up two coats of mud in one night. The owner was standing there weeping while it was going on - it was like the cloud hanging over her was finally blown away."

The volunteers help the families know they are not alone and that they don't have to go through the recovery alone, added Roth. That support is needed in a time when Roth said feelings about the storm are getting darker and more stressful. While he noted that the overall emotional state of the congregation is mostly positive and optimistic, there are moments of despair and deep sadness.

"Maybe some of the harder times are right now. I think it's a little easier to become discouraged at this point in time. You look around and what bothered you a little at first bothers you more now. There's still debris along the roads - you wonder if it will ever go away. I don't see anyone feeling hopeless, because hope is out there, but it is hard emotionally and mentally. It's just a realization that this is not going to go away quickly. This will be around for a year or more. The whole coast won't be rebuilt for years. The reality of this hadn't really sunk in the first month after the hurricane."

Through the powerful emotions, again, Roth noted that the congregation is showing its strength and resiliency. Some of the affected families have taken lead roles in the recovery process. Church services each Sunday at the rural church remain positive and supportive.

"Our services still have a sense of excitement and optimism and expectation. The Lord is definitely present. People have been so blessed and we're overwhelmed with the help we're getting. Seeing the help we're getting - that's the uplift."

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