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Spokane youth assist in Gulf Coast recovery

By Virginia de Leon

Nearly three years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, a group of Spokane volunteers continues to help pave the road to recovery.  Now that images of flooded homes and shocked victims no longer dominate the news, many Americans have forgotten about the storm and its aftermath.

For some Catholics in the Spokane diocese, however, Katrina’s devastation continues to shape the lives of people they know—hurricane survivors with whom they’ve worked side-by-side and whose stories have intertwined with their lives.

Waveland Youth
Youth from Catholic Diocese of Spokane stand by sign where St. Clare Catholic Church once stood.

Last summer, 18 high school students and eight adult chaperones from several parishes traveled to Waveland, Miss., a town that was nearly wiped off the map.

They spent a week doing carpentry, plumbing and other construction work.  They also established relationships with residents and experienced first-hand their struggle to rebuild.

During their visit, people often stopped to talk, shake hands and express gratitude, said Dan Glatt, youth minister at Our Lady of Fatima parish and primary organizer of the trips. 

“So many people came forward to say, ‘Thank you for not forgetting us—we are so glad you’re here,’” he said.  “The gratitude was overwhelming.”

This July, Dan and 17-year-old Molly Wakeling from St. John Vianney will return to Waveland with 12 others.  They will continue the work they started last year in order to help displaced families return to their homes.

Basically, they want Waveland residents to know they’re not alone and people from other parts of the country still care.

Before going to the Gulf Coast last summer, Molly thought the relief work was done and life was back to normal for most people who suffered after Katrina.  When the group arrived by bus after flying to nearby New Orleans, she quickly learned that thousands of people continue to live in transitional trailers.  She also realized that communities such as Waveland will never be the same again.

“The trip taught me that every little bit helps,” said Molly, a junior at Spokane Valley’s University High School.  “The task of setting the Gulf Coast back on its feet is a daunting one, but if people work together, we can accomplish huge things and make a difference for the thousands affected by Hurricane Katrina.”

Catholic Charities made the students’ mission trip to the Gulf Coast possible.  Catholic Charities USA gave Catholic Charities in Spokane some funds to help Katrina victims who relocated to the Spokane area.  Because only a few sought refuge in Eastern Washington, Catholic Charities decided to use the remaining funds for direct aid to the Gulf Coast.

Initially, organizers thought they would go to New Orleans, said Dan, who has coordinated numerous mission trips to Mexico and has worked in youth ministry for 22 years.

After corresponding with volunteers at St. Clare Recovery in Waveland, he and others decided that this coastal community of 7,000, which is the headquarters for much of the relief work that continues in the Gulf Coast, would be a place for youth from Spokane to make a lasting impact.

The students and adult chaperones worked with St. Clare Recovery, a nonprofit that coordinates volunteer groups, providing housing, tools and materials, and connecting them with residents who need help.

St. Clare parish once had a school, convent and rectory located right on the Gulf of Mexico, Dan explained.  Nothing was left after Katrina.  Now, members of the parish worship in a tent.

In the spot where the church once stood, parishioners erected a sign: “Katrina was big, but God is bigger.”

The message not only bolstered spirits of people at St. Clare and in Waveland, but also showed volunteers from Spokane and throughout the country that hope remains amid the tragedy.

When they arrived last August, the group were shocked to see the ruins.  Some businesses on the north side of town were up and running again, Molly said, but on the south side only the foundations of buildings remained.

Despite their loss, people in Waveland were kind to visitors.

“They were so happy that somebody out there still cared, still knew that they existed,” Molly repeated, expressing how overwhelming the sentiments were.  “They didn’t know or care whose house we worked on or how good our work would be.  They were just happy we were there.”

The group from Spokane arrived in the midst of a heat wave.  Exacerbated by humidity, temperatures soared to more than 100 degrees.  To prevent heat stroke and weather-related illnesses, they began working at 6:30 a.m. and finished at noon or 1 p.m.  They also took water breaks every 15 to 20 minutes to prevent dehydration.  Molly said she drank about three liters of water each day.

Surrounded by so many signs of loss, there were few complaints about the rough conditions.

“This isn’t a field trip,” Dan reminded the students when they arrived.  “We’re here to serve.”

Youth build ramp
Spokane youth build wheel chair ramp.

The group worked on two projects: building a 22-foot wheelchair ramp for John Storm and sheet-rocking bathrooms of a house owned by Deborah Cranmer, a woman with a brain tumor whose home was completely flooded during Katrina.

During their stay, the group slept in a warehouse—the only building in the southern part of town that was still standing.  Now used to house volunteers, the warehouse was the town morgue during Katrina’s aftermath.

When they weren’t working, students spent the afternoons in the air-conditioned warehouse, where they shared dorm-style rooms with as many as five other people.  They played games. 

The Rev. Jim Kuhns, now at St. Mary’s Catholic Parish in Spokane Valley, who accompanied the students, taught them how to play pinochle, Molly said. 

People from town also visited them to talk about their lives and the suffering they endured during and after Katrina.

Every night, the students and adults also gathered to pray and to talk about their feelings and experiences.

For Dan and several others, one of the journey’s highlights took place later in the week when Father Jim blessed Deborah’s house after they finished their work. 

Many students took part sprinkling holy water on the walls.

“It was a powerful experience,” Dan said.  “By working with the community, we developed relationships.  It’s a way to live out the Gospel.”

For Molly, who was the official “cutter woman” with the miter saw at the ramp project, the most memorable part of the trip was when John Storm rode his wheelchair up the new ramp—an addition to his home that could save his life in the event of another disastrous storm.

“He was so happy.  The look in his eyes was sheer joy and happiness,” said Molly, who is still teary-eyed at the memory.   “Even though all we did during that whole week was build him this wheelchair ramp, it made an impact not only on him but also on the rest of the community.  Just this small thing we were able to do told John and the people of Waveland that somebody cared.”

Now, as she prepares for a second trip, she hopes to encourage others to reach out.

“Every time I think about the time I spent in Mississippi, sweaty and covered in sawdust, I have a feeling of wholesomeness, complete satisfaction and outright joy,” she said.

The trip helped her discover her passion for helping others, she said.  Now, she wants to encourage others to try and make a difference in the world.

Almost three years after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, there is much work left to be done, according to the St. Clare Recovery website.  Thousands still live in makeshift homes or trailers.  Many suffer in poverty and despair.

Organizers at St. Clare say that there is still a need for skilled volunteers and building materials.

They’re also asking for donations in the form of gift cards for major home improvement and discount retailers.

For information, call 747-7213 or visit www.stclarerecovery.com.