By JULIE KAY
The Advocate staff writer
Published: Feb 18, 2006
AmeriCorps volunteer Meghan Greeley, left, and the Rev. Clint Mitchell, associate pastor of University Presbyterian Church, stand in the Sunday school classroom the church converted into a dormitory-style space to serve hurricane relief volunteers and, if necessary, future evacuees.
Months ago while University Presbyterian Church was still serving as home to hurricane evacuees, church leaders were looking to the future and asking questions.
Was there enough restroom space?
What about shower facilities and sleeping accommodations for volunteers?
Would they be ready for the next hurricane season should church shelters be needed again?
Churches throughout the area were asking similar questions in anticipation of having to get ready again — this time for mission volunteers.
For many churches, spring and summer are prime mission opportunities and no one disputes that New Orleans and surrounding areas damaged by hurricanes Katrina and Rita are going to need the help.
The Rev. Clint Mitchell, associate pastor at University Presbyterian Church, said having evacuees in the church helped members be aware of the needs.
“We didn’t know how long our shelter guests would be here and we started asking how do we make better accommodations, especially showers and bathroom facilities. That’s where it began,” he said.
Church members had already started by adding a shower on a porch off the church kitchen and that led to talk of a next step, which in turn led to discussions about serving as host to work groups.
Mitchell said church members realized that some of the renovations could be made fairly easily. A relatively long Sunday school classroom now holds five bunk beds ordered and assembled by church volunteers. With a little painting, the dormitory-type space is ready for a small group of volunteers, he said.
The church is looking into how it could create more spaces such as “a place where volunteers could relax, talk about their experiences and decompress,” he said.
“In essence, how do we practice good hospitality.”
Several groups have already asked that University Presbyterian let them know when they are ready for volunteers, he said. Working with the church’s regional body, the Presbytery, and community organizations, will better organize what is needed and when, he said.
While the ability to house volunteers will be relatively small, the arrangement will work well for smaller groups, such as visiting child psychologists wanting to work with evacuee children or volunteers who will be sent by their churches in shifts, Mitchell said.
A church in Rochester, N.Y. has expressed interest in sending groups of eight to 10, six or seven times during the year, he said.
“Churches like the one in Rochester understand this is not a six-month recovery effort,” Mitchell said. “The demand for work groups in this area will go on for a number of years.”
Funding for the renovation efforts has been possible through “very generous support following the storm” for all hurricane relief work, he said.
It’s hard to speculate on how many more work groups will be coming in as compared to previous years, he said. “We weren’t even thinking about this last year.”
Mitchell said one New Orleans Presbyterian church opened spaces by the middle of October and were already booked through the end of April and maybe beyond. “That’s part of the overflow we’re expecting.”
Gene Mills, president of PRC Compassion, a charitable organization working in alliance with the Pastor’s Resource Council, said many of the groups will want to get closer to where the actual needs are, such as Slidell and New Orleans.
Feeding and housing the groups is a prime consideration, Mills said. “We are four months into what could conceivably be a seven-year problem.”
The problem is finding places to put them, he said. Some will be in temporary gyms or tent cities. Some are proposing modular housing. “Most want to keep their teams intact and they generally travel in double-digit numbers,” he added.
Now that FEMA has stopped paying hotel costs for evacuees, churches may have “incoming needs as well as volunteer needs,” Mills explained.
Pastor Dennis Watson of Celebration Church in New Orleans knows the devastation of Katrina all too well. Both of his church campuses were heavily damaged and Watson has been traveling between Baton Rouge and New Orleans ever since.
His New Orleans ministry, about 3,000 strong before Katrina, is housing about 150 volunteers each week, he said. The capacity is 200. He anticipates being able to house an additional 400 when new showers, restrooms and housing units are in place.
The additional help with housing and construction is through donations and aid from organizations like PRC Compassion, he said. “When half your membership is gone, you don’t quite have the finances you used to,” he said.
While many of his church members, those who have returned, are still cleaning out their own homes, others are fanning out into the New Orleans community as volunteers.
“I think the thing about volunteers is that they bring hope to New Orleans and to those lives. Just to clean out a home gives someone hope,” he said.
The church is booking weeks and months in advance for its housing, which is a good thing, Watson said. “We need every volunteer. Nobody realizes how bad it is in New Orleans until they come.”
At Bethany World Prayer Center’s north and south locations, housing evacuees meant adding shower and laundry facilities months ago.
“We knew we would be in for the long haul so we put in the renovations so it would be available to them and, at the same time, we know we’re eight months away from the next hurricane season,” said Tara Wicker, Bethany’s hurricane relief operation director.
While the church was responding to immediate needs at the time, the additions will be helpful for volunteers and other future needs, she said.
Being ready for whatever may be needed, whether it’s linens, air mattresses or facility improvements has become a part of the church planning ahead, she said.
Bethany has been getting phone calls in preparation for spring breaks and church youth groups, Wicker said.
“When we have volunteers, we figure where we plug them into,” she said.
The Rev. Bland Washington, pastor of Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, said one of his church’s goals is to try and repair and renovate the third floor of what used to be a school years ago.
“I’ve got 15 to 20 rooms; it’s a lot of rooms, but this is an old building and it needs some work,” he said.
Washington said he would have liked to have used the space to house more evacuees months ago, but was unable to because of conditions in the third floor rooms.
Wallboard repair, painting and ceiling work, plus “money, time and people to do it” is all that is stopping him from being able to house volunteers, he said.
“There’s a great need for it,” Washington said. “In the back of our minds, we anticipated this happening.”
The volunteer number for Bethany World Prayer Center’s hurricane relief efforts and resource coordination is (225) 906-2112.
The phone number for Celebration Church in New Orleans is (504) 831-9673 or http://www.celebrationchurch.org.