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Churches help Katrina family

George Smith is hoping to see a couple rolls of insulation, some doors, and maybe some sinks this Christmas.

BY HEATHER MOYER | INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. | December 18, 2006

"Other people need to hear their story."

—Jean Brandenburg

George Smith is hoping to see a couple rolls of insulation, some doors, and maybe some sinks this Christmas.

A strange Christmas list? Not if you're trying to help rebuild a home severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Smith is helping spearhead the "One Home At A Time" project for the Speedway Christian Church and Carmel Christian Church near Indianapolis. The project has the two churches rebuilding one family's Louisiana home each piece at time - from insulation rolls to doors and more.

Smith and his wife work closely with Disciple of Christ disaster relief. The two spent much of the last year along the Gulf Coast at the denomination's "Mission Stations" doing hurricane recovery. Smith said as he worked with volunteers to gut the homes of so many people, he and fellow volunteers began wondering more about what the families do after that point.

Smith and volunteers from both the Speedway and Carmel churches helped gut the home of one family, and then returned in September to roof the home when they heard that project had not yet been done.

"The groups that went down to help this family, we sat down and talked one evening," explained Smith. "How do we help? Where do we start? We talked about how do you build a relationship with someone when you gut their homes. You do that, but then you don't know where they go to after that or what happens to them. So we thought, 'What would happen if we adopted a family? What if we saw them through from where we found them until they had their own home?'"

From there the plans took hold. Smith said the church volunteers weren't sure how they'd do it, so they approached the Disciples of Christ denomination - which gave its blessing.

With the help of a Speedway church volunteer who's also a social worker, George and his wife headed back down to the Gulf Coast to the home they were working on in September. "We spoke with Ronnie and Janet Keller and found out their real situation," he explained.

Jean Brandenburg said interviewing the Kellers helped get an overall picture of what their needs really are. "We'd done their roof in September and they hadn't been able to do anything since then except apply for a grant," said Brandenburg, the social worker and member of Speedway Christian Church. "It was just too big a project for them and they didn't know where to start. I found my role was to prioritize and make a list for them on what they should do next."

Brandenburg said the Kellers aren't in the best financial situation due to disabilities and limited income.

To piece together the family's recovery, volunteers sat down and pieced together just what building materials and supplies are needed to rebuild the home. Then they wrote up a letter that was distributed to the church members, along with other family and friends across the country.

The opening of the letter reads, "Ronnie & Janet Keller evacuated their home in Chalmette, Louisiana, before Hurricane Katrina flooded the area in August 2005. Their house stood in 8-10 feet of water with mold and hopelessness emerging as the only byproducts. Now, at age 57, they are living in a FEMA trailer in their front yard. We can't save the entire Gulf Coast, but we can help them."

Smith said the rebuild project needs to raise $5,000 by December 31 to purchase the correct supplies for the next phase. He estimates it will cost $25,000 to get the Kellers back into their home. The fundraising letter itemizes the building needs. One can purchase a roll of insulation for $20, a door for $25, a roll of electrical wire for $75 and cabinets for $100. While the fundraising letter only lists several of the needs, the entire list is available as well.

The next step for the Keller's rebuild comes in January, said Smith. Volunteer teams from both churches will head down and wire the home in the first few weeks of the new year. Then another crew will come down in February to do more work. Smith and his wife will also return to the Gulf Coast in January for another long-term volunteer term. Smith said when they're not working on the Keller's home, they will work closely with the Mission Stations and the Disciples of Christ's other Hurricane Katrina work projects.

Smith and Brandenburg hope their churches' example catches on and that other churches adopt families. Just building the relationship with the Kellers has been helpful and meaningful, said Brandenburg.

"It's been interesting getting to know them," she said. "I spent the week with them in September listening to their story and hearing what they've been through. Other people need to hear their story. It's not that theirs is so different from others, it's just important to put a face on what has happened."

The need is there in the Kellers' neighborhood, added Smith. "In their neighborhood there are probably 300 houses or so. If there are 30 people living there, that's a stretch. The rest of the homes are sitting there empty and many have not been gutted yet. Some progress has been made but it's been very slow. We're just trying to go where God leads us."

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Related Links:

Carmel Christian Church

Speedway Christian Chuch

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