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Several WSU Common Ministry students return to Gulf Coast during second spring break of clean-up from hurricanes

About half of 14 Washington State University students who went to New Orleans for spring break in March 2006 with the Common Ministry are among 22 going March 10 to 17 this year, in 2007.

Gulf Recovery - K-House at WSU
Connie Andry and Marnie Miller-keas, WSU nursing student

The students went and are going with a philosophy or spirituality of learning from those they help, said The Rev. Robert Hicks, United Methodist campus minister with the Common Ministry.

“They are going because they have not known the loss the people there have experienced.  They go to meet Jesus, to see Christ and to receive from the risen Christ,” he said.

Students from colleges and universities throughout the United States spent spring break 2006 there helping muck out homes damaged by floods.

Robert said students have been showing a slide presentation called, “A Life-Changing Experience,” telling of their exposure to the infinite disaster there.

He led last year’s group with Walt and Jan Miller of Pullman through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.  This year they are going to New Orleans through United Methodist Committee on Relief.

Robert was moved by the bonding with a homeowner, Connie Andry, whose family tried to convince her to leave. 

“Connie held onto a sense of the community and history of the neighborhood,” he said.  “She was one of the first ones to return to her neighborhood.  She was upset when a neighbor’s husband committed suicide in desperation.”

Robert saw her tears as students carried out letters and photos, and she watched her life be thrown into a heap.  By the fourth day, the house’ framework stood like a skeleton.  Then she spoke of having hope about rebuilding.

“We did a prayer blessing as we prepared to leave.  Connie told of being transformed, saying goodbye to memories and artifacts, but seeing the possibility for new life,” he said.  “She thanked God for the outpouring of help from WSU students.”

Connie is no stranger to people in need.  For years, she has helped homeless people at Catholic Charities.  Suddenly, she was on the receiving end of charity.

Connie’s brother, a jazz musician, gave the students a tour of the Ninth Ward, explaining what had been there, telling of people and political issues.  They also heard about a student team who broke into a school to clean it up, knowing that people moving back needed schools open.

Robert hopes to learn this year more about the social and political tensions and transitions.

For information, call 332-2611.

Catholic Charities staffer gains hope to rebuild her life, lives of others

Having the young people come to New Orleans from Washington State University restored Connie Andry’s personal strength. 

“It was like opening a door.  I knew I could go forward,” she said.  “It put life in my home, which had looked like death since Aug. 2005.  My neighbors’ homes also looked like death.”

As a result of her home being restored to what it was before the hurricane, Connie gained hope that she could rebuild her life.

Connie believes the people there would not be as far along in recovery if the volunteers were not coming.

“We would not have had the strength or people to do it,” she said likening the help to the birth of a baby after a death.  “It gave us strength to start to rebuild our lives.”

The government, she pointed out, was focusing on rebuilding infrastructure, while the volunteers helped people in their personal lives, which “supports bringing back entire cities.”

For the first time in her 30 years with Catholic Charities as director of homeless programs, she experienced what those she works with experience—homelessness.  Even co-workers who did not live in a damaged area or experience a direct loss were overcome with sadness from supporting friends and relatives.

“It was life-changing,” Connie said.  “One co-worker’s brother and sister moved away, so she had to rebuild her life without them. 

“We speak of the Katrina syndrome, referring to the memory loss, moving slower and the deep pain we cannot touch since the trauma,” she explained.

“Systems that were once in place are no longer there.  So we have learned how to ‘make do’,” Connie added.

The people she cares for in Catholic Charities’ programs, are trying to pull their lives together.  Young people come back and have no jobs.  Even if they had a job, there is no day care for those with babies.  In addition, jobs available do not pay enough to cover the $800 rent for a one-bedroom apartment.

“Housing has become a hot commodity, because the housing stock has been reduced,” she said.  “When FEMA came in supporting rents, the rents went way up all over the South.  Jobs don’t pay enough to cover housing.”

So now she said that families who once knew how to survive must relearn in a new system.  There are new homeless families who cannot afford rent.  The middle class as well as the poor are in shelters.

Connie encounters much depression in clients, but said few recognize it or seek help.

Catholic Charities is working in collaboration with other churches and community agencies to meet self-recovery needs, reach families in need and provide resources. Catholic Charities’ Operation Helping Hand started immediately, bringing people to help gut houses, particularly to enable elderly people to return to their homes.

“We will be part of rebuilding New Orleans for the long haul,” Connie said.


Mary Stamp - The Fig Tree - © February 2007