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'Pensacola wall' leaves legacy

For hundreds of volunteers across the country, the legacy of the "Pensacola Wall" lives on.

BY SUSAN KIM | PENSACOLA, Fla. | July 1, 2006

"It was amazing to see how it just grew, week by week."

—Joan Taylor

For hundreds of volunteers across the country, the legacy of the "Pensacola Wall" lives on.

When McPherson College student Nick Anderson traveled to the Florida Panhandle city to repair hurricane-damaged homes, he was housed in an apartment set up for volunteers by Church of the Brethren Disaster Response.

On the apartment wall, Anderson created an illustration of a pickup truck with the simple words "Disaster Response Pensacola." Volunteers were invited to sign their names.

A year later, more than 500 people had signed what is now known simply as "The Wall." It has become, reflected Jane Yount, a symbol for a volunteer community spread across the country.

"The Wall has really transformed into quite a unique monument to those who have a heart for disaster survivors," said Yount, Brethren coordinator of disaster response. "I had a chance to sign it myself when I was there last year."

Joan and Phil Taylor, Brethren volunteer service workers, stayed in Pensacola for a year. They watched volunteers transform the community, which was devastated by Hurricane Ivan on Sept. 16, 2004. Ivan ripped through the Florida Panhandle and the Alabama coast, also spawning severe flooding in several more states as it plowed inland.

Pensacola became a hub of volunteer activity.

"With 5 to 25 new volunteers arriving each week, the wall has been transformed from a blank slate to lots of names of people from all over the country, with many repeaters," said Joan. "We estimate we have at least 500 new friends after being at the project for a year, and we're reminded of them every time we looked at the wall."

Joan thinks other volunteer groups should think about creating their own walls. "It's an idea that could be replicated," she said. "It was amazing to see how it just grew, week by week."

The Wall began to show how volunteers across the nation can form a tight-knit community - even when they are separated by hundreds of miles. "It's amazing how often people would come and read the wall to see who they knew had been there before them," said Joan. "They would come in and study the wall, and say, 'wow, I haven't heard from that person in years but they were here!'"

The apartments were partially demolished this week so they can be completely refurbished, and the project will move to new quarters. At first, Brethren volunteers thought they would have to leave The Wall behind forever.

But teacher and photographer Glenn Riegel - himself a volunteer - captured a photograph of The Wall, then designed a poster. "It became a tradition for anybody who was participating to sign The Wall. And so we recorded The Wall for posterity," he said.

The poster will debut at the Brethren's national annual meeting in Des Moines next week.

The Taylors hope the poster - along with a simple jar of M&M's candy - will boost visibility of the disaster response program within their own denomination and others. "For the meeting, we created a jar of M&Ms," explained Phil. "We tabulated the number of volunteers who registered for our Gulf Coast projects. We're going to invite people attending to guess how many are in there."

The Wall and the M&M's are physical reminders of how much difference each volunteer team makes - especially when you add them up. "Even if you show up with five or 10 from your church, there are hundreds of others," he pointed out.

The Taylors and others also emphasized that places like Pensacola are still recovering from the 2004 Florida hurricanes. People are still out of their homes. They urged people to remember that long-term recovery goes on long after news of a disaster leaves the headlines.

"Ivan hit a relatively small area compared to Katrina," said Joan, "and we are still seeing recovery in Pensacola. It takes a long time for the people to move on with their lives."

It's still hard for many people to find an affordable place to live in Pensacola, said Phil. "A lot of the multi-family rental stock in the area was heavily damaged and never reopened."

The emotional stress in Florida is also very high, Joan added. "You think you recovered from one hurricane, and another hurricane season is upon you."

That was a new experience for the Taylors. "We lived with that stress of where the hurricane is going to go. We asked ourselves: do we evacuate? Unless you planned way ahead of time down there in the Pensacola area, chances are you could not get gas to evacuate. If you hadn't decided a week ahead of time to leave, chances are you couldn't."

Now the Taylors are back at the Church of the Brethren Disaster Response headquarters in New Windsor, Md., until they're deployed to another site. Until then, The Wall poster will remind them of their strong ties to Pensacola.

At New Windsor, they miss the rush of being at a disaster site. "Life here in New Windsor is so quiet. We work regular hours. We have nights and weekends off," said Phil, somewhat wistfully.

"I miss being a part of that teamwork, that intensity," admitted Joan.

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