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Published: Monday, 1/18/2010

Keeping the faith: Area Katrina volunteers embark on annual trip

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Go past the most popular sound bytes of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s landmark "I Have a Dream" speech and you'll hear words with a special meaning for 2010.

"With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope," Mr. King said from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. "With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood."

Faith. What is it?

The endless hope for a better day, put to the test now in Haiti by an earthquake that killed or stranded thousands of people last week.

And, of course, mankind's faith was put to the test on U.S. soil by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and by several hurricanes that slammed the Gulf of Mexico coastline in recent years, most notably Hurricane Katrina in August, 2005.

This year is the fifth anniversary of Katrina, one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history. And for some, the attention switch on the devastation in New Orleans was never turned off.

Louisiana United Methodist Church Disaster Response, Inc., estimates that more than 70,220 volunteers have provided more than 2.9 million hours of labor for a combined value of more than $54.6 million since 2005, mostly for gutting and rehabbing homes.

And that's just predominantly from Methodists.

Marci Moussa, a member of Calvary United Methodist Church, is ready for the trip to New Orleans. Volunteers from Maine to California have tried to help New Orleans get back on its feet. Marci Moussa, a member of Calvary United Methodist Church, is ready for the trip to New Orleans. Volunteers from Maine to California have tried to help New Orleans get back on its feet.
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Add up the time donated by Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Jews, Episcopalians, plus all of the volunteers unaffiliated with any religious denomination and - well - you get the point.

New Orleans, once dubbed "The City That Care Forgot," has gotten a lot of love.

But like a vulnerable child, it needs a lot more.

That fact isn't lost on countless area churches, now in their fifth year of making an annual, week-long pilgrimage to the Big Easy.

The mix includes Maumee United Methodist Church, which sent off 23 volunteers in two vans, a truck, and a car on Saturday. The contingent was as large as any the Maumee church has sent, a sign that interest in helping Hurricane Katrina victims hasn't waned.

Nor did volunteers vanish from the Maumee church once they started being charged $300 apiece to defray the group's costs.

That particular group is scheduled to report for duty this morning at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Slidell, La., a suburb east of New Orleans. The group will be subdivided and given separate assignments.

Tony Lane, 52, a BASF chemist, and his wife, Barbara, 51, a leadership trainer at ProMedica Health System, have gone each year.

They now make one request for preferential treatment: Letting their family be on the same team.

Their daughter, Jessica Lane, 27, and her twin brother, Ian, have made the trip a family affair the past three years. Jessica, a Perrysburg graphic artist, designs the group's T-shirts. Ian, a financial consultant in Columbus, feels so strongly about the trip that he uses his only week of vacation for it.

"You will go through the entire range of human emotions when you're on this trip," Tony Lane said, trying to explain why the volunteering has become addictive.

"Every second you're down there, you know you're doing the right thing," he said.

"It definitely influences your other 51 weeks of the year."

The Katrina trips are the latest of several work missions put together by Maumee UMC's volunteer coordinator, Allen Drown, a spry 66-year-old who for years also assembled teams of volunteers for projects undertaken in northwest Ohio by the Maumee Valley chapter of Habitat for Humanity International.

"We're called by Christ to share his love," Mr. Drown said. "This is one way of people doing it. It's much more personal this way."

For some churches, it's more than just an annual mission.

Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Tipp City, Ohio, a megachurch off I-75 on the north side of Dayton, has sent about 50 teams of volunteers to rebuild New Orleans in five years.

While many volunteers are college students and others who are physically fit, work can be found for just about anyone.

Last year, Maumee United Methodist Church had an 84-year-old go to New Orleans. She helped out in the kitchen and in the office.

It's almost impossible to know how many hundreds of thousands of volunteers, from Maine to California, have tried to help get New Orleans back on its feet.

The Aldersgate church in Slidell has groups arriving from all over the country this month. Officials have said the activity generally picks up throughout the New Orleans area during spring break, when college students and K-12 students have time off.

Volunteering has been steady enough that a modest, 4,500-square-foot structure called the Epworth Center was built on the Aldersgate campus in 2008 to act as a lodge for up to 56 volunteers.

The only frills are a small kitchen, a meeting room, and showers to go along with bunk beds. As the center's usage declines, the church will find other purposes for it.

According to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, the New Orleans population increased by 25,000 people in 2008 - a sign that displaced people could be coming back, albeit a study published in October claims the types of people living in the metro area changed significantly between 2000 and 2008.

The Rev. Yvonne Dayries, who manages volunteers for Louisiana United Methodist Church Disaster Response, Inc., said there's a lot of hope and despair in New Orleans now.

Con men prey on hurricane victims, posing as contractors and slipping away with their money, she said.

Beyond the occasional corruption and deceit, though, are some uplifting stories - such as one last week in which an elderly woman got a new roof from a California roofer five years after being taken by some unscrupulous character.

The magic of volunteering is "bringing that light to the darkness of people who have given up," Ms. Dayries said.

"I think you have to have that love in your heart to help individuals," she said.

The Lanes have that.

"I'm hungry for people to experience this," Mr. Lane said.

He said those who dedicate themselves to hurricane victims in New Orleans "come out of this as brothers," and that the victims themselves are considered family.

The Maumee United Methodist Church group ends its week with a dinner that Mr. Lane calls "a family reunion." The guests of honor are those who have benefitted from its labor during any one of its missions.

"We cry and we hug. We say, 'You only knew us for a week, but when we go back to Ohio, you're part of us.'•"

Mr. Drown said the week becomes "an obvious example of the way it used to be - and the way it should be."

Mr. Lane said he recognizes the cultural differences and the socioeconomic differences.

He is amused by the notoriously quirky behavior in one of North America's most unique cities.

He also scolds himself if he gets judgmental thoughts because, deep down, it's a two-way street. He's there to help people in need, while they're reciprocating by making him a better person.

It's hard work. But for at least one week a year, there's this sense of satisfaction, devoid of the 9-to-5 rat race back home.

"We're allowed to be the people we want to be," Mr. Lane said.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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