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Churches build volunteer dorm

The last time Diane Richards came to help repair Hurricane Katrina homes in the Biloxi, Miss., area, she slept in the women's bathroom of a church.

BY SIMON GRAF | D'Iberville, Miss. | March 24, 2006

"Hundreds of volunteers were sleeping wherever they could."

—Al Dalton

The last time Diane Richards came to help repair Hurricane Katrina homes in the Biloxi, Miss., area, she slept in the women's bathroom of a church.

There simply was no other space around. Cots, sleeping bags and air mattresses of dozens of out-of-town United Methodist Church volunteers already filled Heritage United Methodist Church's hallways, Sunday School rooms and even the sanctuary.

All over the Gulf Coast, the situation is the same for the thousands of volunteers who come to provide post-Katrina relief. Each week, the volunteers still come to help rebuild homes.

Yet few planners have considered providing shelter for them.

But an Indiana group of United Methodists is working to change that. Volunteers Al Dalton of Indianapolis and Ken Hollis of Whitestown, Ind., are building a nearly 4,000-square foot dormitory for volunteers on the grounds of the church, located in D'Iberville, Mississippi.

Dalton said they got the idea after arriving at the Gulf Coast and seeing the sleeping conditions for volunteers. The volunteers, many who come to the Gulf Coast in church relief groups, travel from all over the country to help restore homes in the Biloxi, Miss., area, an area well-known for its white beaches and rows of casinos, many still damaged from the storm.

"Hundreds of volunteers were sleeping wherever they could," he said. "We thought we should build something for the workers because they're going to be here for a decade."

Dalton said they were glad to help out an area that has received much less news attention than New Orleans, which also was heavily damaged by the hurricane.

"I don't think any of us knew how devastated Mississippi was until we got here," he said.

The dorm, which is expected to be completed April 28, will house 46 in bunks. It has accessible common areas, including a spacious kitchen and bathrooms and showers. The project is expected to cost $200,000. Indiana churches have raised $80,000 so far and are currently working to obtain the remainder of the donation money.

Dozens of Indiana volunteers come every week to complete a different task, such as installing the sheetrock for walls in the new building or assembling the sturdy wooden bunk beds.

Pastor David Cumbest of Heritage United Methodist Church said the new dorm offer from the Indiana churches was "an answer to a prayer."

He added that it will go far toward accomplishing the church's relief mission.

"That will allow us to do that for the next five years," Cumbest said. Without the dorm, he added, "I'm not sure we would get recruits to come here for five years to sleep on the floor or on an air mattress."

The prospect of a volunteer living area pleases the 58-year-old Richards of Knoxville, Tennessee.

"I'm just amazed I'm going to have a place" to stay, she said. "It's wonderful. It's amazing to me the role the church has in the restoration of the homes."

Dalton said the dorm is the first project of its kind the Indiana churches have tackled. Although he said they do not have other plans to build more dorms elsewhere in the future, now that they have experience with the Heritage dorm project, they easily could work on others.

"I hope there's never a need, but yes, if there is, I'd be happy to be in on it," he said.

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