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Youth help LA survivors

Claudia Batista had just about given up on saving her Slidell, La., home where she had lived for more than 20 years.

BY BOYCE BOWDON | SLIDELL, La. | July 3, 2006

"We need volunteers even more than money."

—Dale Kimball

Claudia Batista had just about given up on saving her Slidell, La., home where she had lived for more than 20 years.

Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters lifted the 71-year-old widow's house off its and foundation and moved it three feet before dumping it back on the ground.

Inspectors saw no hope of saving Batista's house and added it to the list of properties to be demolished.

Since then, Batista has been living on her property in a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) - but she knew she couldn't stay in it forever. She also knew she didn't have the money to build a house.

That's how life was until a month ago when a United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) team showed up to take a closer look at Batista's problem.

"We could see why her house was on the demolition list, but we decided we could probably save it, " said Dale Kimball, director of the Slidell North Shore Recovery Station. The Slidell recovery station is one of six stations established by the Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church - with UMCOR's help - to serve survivors of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Kimball assigned Claudia's house to Project Noah, a ministry sponsored by First United Methodist Church of Baton Rouge and Louisiana United Methodist Disaster Recovery Mission.

Project Noah works with teens from across the nation who have volunteered to work one week at a time with hurricane survivors. The seven-week project began in mid-June and will continue through July with the goal of getting homes back in shape for at least 20 families.

Batista's home fit the bill for Project Noah's work, even if it did look a bit overwhelming.

"Claudia's house hadn't been touched since the flood," said Kevin Krekci, a young adult who leads one of the two Project Noah centers. "It was a wreck inside. Her possessions were scattered everywhere. Her refrigerator was turned over and food and mold covered the kitchen floor."

Undaunted by the problem, youth teams started working on the house about three weeks ago.

"Our volunteers gutted the inside," explained Krekci. "Then we jacked the house up and built a solid foundation under it. Now we are getting the inside in good shape so Claudia can move back in."

Krekci added that Batista is thrilled. "She spends a couple hours every day with our crew, doing what she can to help. She is very happy and very grateful."

And Batista is not the only one who is pleased: The inspectors who had placed the house on the demolition list are happy with the improvements. The Rev. Darryl Tate is also excited about the progress.

"Our Project Noah kids are doing wonderful work," said Tate, executive director of the Louisiana United Methodist Disaster Recovery Mission. "They are clearing out debris, making repairs, and tearing down houses that can't be saved."

Kimball said the youth teams have been remarkably productive and are providing vital services. Volunteers like them are crucial to the recovery process on the Gulf Coast.

"We need volunteers even more than we need money," he said. "Our labor force is all but gone. We try to help the poorest of the poor. FEMA has already done what they can to help them. They don't have any insurance or any other resources. If faith groups like ours don't help them, nobody else will. And unless we have volunteers, we can't help them."

Kimball said volunteers are needed for the work they can do, and for the witness they can make.

"We are not only doing work nobody else is around to do, we are demonstrating God's love in concrete ways that make powerful impacts on people. I've seen folks who were ready to give up, perk up and try again."

The youth who are serving in the recovery effort are God's hands and feet, noted Kimball. "I promise you, they will go home with a lot more than they brought!"

One thing the youth teams will take with them, he added, is an awareness of how devastated the area is.

"We are still a long way from recovered. Families were scattered all over the country. By coming down here and being with the people - holding their hands, listening to them, taking pictures with them, caring for them - these kids will help hurricane survivors get down the road to recovery. And the kids will go home with a new perspective - realizing that even though these people are poor, they are not worthless. They are God's children too."

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