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'An incredible thing'

The volunteer camp on the grounds of St. Paul United Methodist Church in coastal Mississippi is growing every day.

BY HEATHER MOYER | OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss. | January 30, 2006

The volunteer camp on the grounds of St. Paul United Methodist Church in coastal Mississippi is growing every day.

"We're in the process of doubling our capacity right now," said Mike Malkemes, camp director of Christians Organized for Relief Efforts (CORE). "We'll soon be able to hold 485 people in the camp."

The volunteer tent village is a place for people to stay while in town helping with Hurricane Katrina recovery. The village started going up only days after Katrina struck, organized by several members from two churches in Houston. The members came to the area hoping to help after the hurricane devastated the region and ended up at St. Paul United Methodist Church. The church members there allowed them to use the land to start housing volunteers coming into the area.

The churches supporting CORE and the tent village from afar are Houston's Gateway Community Church and Gloria Dei Lutheran Church. "I think (the camp) just registered its 3,000th volunteer," said the Rev. Tim Sims, pastor of Gateway Community Church. "We're getting more each week and they're from all over the country."

Sims said the partnership between Gateway, Gloria Dei and St. Paul has been wonderful, and he credits the members of St. Paul for their willingness to support such a mission as a volunteer tent village.

"They opened their field to us. We came in and said we could use a staging area for volunteers. So many volunteers were driving into the area everyday and they had no place to stay and no organization. Our vision was just to create a self-sufficient mobilization platform for volunteers to come in to help rebuild or cleanup. The next thing you know, there it goes - I don't think any of us dreamed it would turn out the way it did."

Malkemes was in the field the first day they were thinking of the idea and has run the camp since. "I saw this field go from tall grass to a tent village," he said. "It's been an incredible thing. The whole month of March we'll probably have 400 to 500 people go through the camp each day."

The tent village has 21 air-conditioned and heated tents. There are also shower units, and St. Paul volunteers help prepare and provide meals in the church building. Volunteers staying at the village help families all across Jackson County. Families in need contact the CORE staff and the CORE staff then sends out a team to help.

"We're still cleaning and sanitizing homes," said Malkemes. "We take out everything that was underwater. We also remove debris and any downed trees. We're also now doing rebuild work, including electrical work, sheetrock and some finishing."

Volunteer groups come from churches, colleges and community organizations across the US. Individuals and families have also been helping. Each morning the crews team up with a leader and then head to their worksite for the day.

Malkemes said the experience has been a joy, especially when he thinks about all the support the camp receives. Chevron pays the camp's electric bill - "and that's a huge help," he said. The Orphan Grain Train has donated food to feed the volunteers. Churches help support the operation by funding the staff and behind-the-scenes operations. Construction companies have donated sheetrock and insulation.

Both Sims and Malkemes said just about everything they need turns up. The two gave numerous examples of various skilled volunteers showing up at the right time - including when some plumbers showed up to help right when the camp's showers needed installing. Another time, said Malkemes, a worksite really needed some skilled carpenters. A short time later a small group of carpenters arrived at the camp asking how they could help.

"It's amazing, every day is a new adventure with a new challenge and new blessings," he said.

And the support the volunteers provide the affected families is even more amazing, added Malkemes. "People we're helping really come out of their depression and realize they're not alone," he said.

"They know people care about them. Most of the families cannot believe people they don't know would come to work for free to help them. We send a team to a home where a couple lives and the work might have taken the couple three to four years. But we send a crew of eight to 12 people and they gut the house in three or four days. The families see the workers working with joy and with smiles, it lightens their hearts."

Malkemes also said one elderly man a work team helped claims he's better off now than before Hurricane Katrina. "This man lost everything, home, cars - everything. But now he says he's happier than before because he has more friends and people are checking on him. He said he'd never go back to the way he was before because he's more blessed now."

The work will continue for a long time in Jackson County, where thousands of families lost homes. Malkemes said CORE and the camp will stay as long as they're needed. Volunteers are always welcome, he said, they just need to call to see when there's space available in the camp. CORE could always use donations, too, he added. Be it money or construction supplies, it's all needed, said Malkemes.

"We need electrical wire, insulation, sheetrock and tools," he explained. "If we have 500 people in this camp everyday we'll need to have enough tools for everyone to use."

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