The following article appeared in this afternoon’s Warsaw (IN) Times-Union newspaper:
Grace Administrators Back From Helping With Hurricane Relief
BY TERESA SMITH, Times-Union Staff Writer
WINONA LAKE – With the ideal of service foremost in their minds, Grace College managers left their regular jobs for 10 days to volunteer in hurricane-ravaged Louisiana.
A call for people with managerial skills from Grace alumnus Dan O’Deens reached the ears of John Boal, of Grace College and Seminary. O’Deens, in addition to being a pastor in Pennsylvania, is an American Red Cross volunteer.
Boal took O’Deens’ request to senior management and Paul DeRenzo, Scott Sharik, Tom Caron and John Yeh agreed to go, along with Jim Robinson, husband of Grace employee Tammie Robinson. They were packed and ready in less than two days, leaving Sept. 9 and returning Sept. 19.
Boal left a couple of days earlier to assess the situation, linking up with O’Deens in Shreveport at the American Red Cross Northwest Louisiana Chapter headquarters.
“The Red Cross volunteers had been working for two weeks, housing, feeding and clothing 25,000 to 27,000 people in shelters, churches and in people’s homes,” Boal said. “The Red Cross was overseeing five major shelters.”
When the Grace team went down, DeRenzo stayed in Shreveport while Sharik, Caron, Yeh and Robinson went on to Northwestern State University, Natchitoches, La., southeast of Shreveport, where they managed a shelter on the campus.
The men became part of a brigade that wore distinctive red and white Red Cross volunteer vests.
“Natchitoches was a lot like Warsaw with the exception that there were 5,5000 extra people in town,” Sharik said. “When we left, there were less than 700 still sheltered.
At NSU, 435 people were stayed in the physical education building, an auxiliary gymnasium. That number swelled to about 1,600 each day as people living in motels drove in for meals and to visit a distribution center.
Northwestern has an enrollment of about 10,000 students. The shelter was set up in the physical education building, basically the campus’ auxiliary gymnasium with offices and classrooms.
The volunteers from Grace joined 27 other volunteers.
Folks continued to arrive from the New Orleans area. When people checked in from a contaminated region, they were given a health assessment, new clothes, a shower and a bed. Their old clothes were burned.
Their old clothes were often the only personal possessions they had.
The campus shelter offered social services, medical care, mental health care and the means to provide eyeglasses and mental health services.
Children were provided with uniforms and rode a bus to school each day.
“This time is unique in that the Red Cross doesn’t usually run shelters more than three days,” Sharik said. “So many people had no other place to go, no relatives in other parts of the country, no credit cards, no way to stay anywhere else. They had never traveled.
“We arrived not only having to deal with a disaster, but with the poorest of the poor.”
The men interviewed new arrivals and took information based on driver’s licenses or Louisiana identification cards, if people had them.
Part of their job was to reunite families. Young children would be handed through an open bus window in New Orleans, into the arms of strangers, and then the bus would leave.
Some parents arranged to move the children as Hurricane Katrina approached. The mother might leave later while the father stayed behind. When a man finally reached a shelter, he had no way of knowing where the rest of the family was.
“The No. 1 goal in sheltering is a zero population,” DeRenzo said. “As soon as they received money, they were supposed to get a bus ticket and leave. But this was so unprecedented, they don’t know what to do.”
The Red Cross offered 14-day hotel stays. Activated debit cards arrived from Baton Rouge with an armed guard escort. National Guardsmen and sheriff’s deputies patrolled the area, armed with M16s.
“There was a lot of miscommunication,” Yeh said. “Every day we heard 50 rumors that might or might not be true. We had to be sure information was accurate. I was surprised it was not seamless.”
Franklin Graham, evangelist Billy Graham’s son, Al Sharpton, a Louisiana state senator’s assistant, mayors and other dignitaries visited the campus shelter.
Boal described the situation as very political. “Churches are very involved in politics in the south, too. Although the Red Cross is not a government agency, they do get government funding during disasters. It took a couple of days before they realized we were there to help and to serve. That breaks down a lot of walls.”
Many Red Cross volunteers are finally using training they received three years ago.
The men talked with “regulars,” though, who shared stories about the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, and hurricanes Ivan and Jeanne they may have received disaster training for three years ago.
“They’d say, ‘See you at next disaster.’ It was kind of neat to hear,” DeRenzo said.
Louisiana was the first state to offer help to New York City after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The New York police and fire departments came immediately in a 50-car caravan and served as couriers to and from Baton Rouge.
Red Cross-affiliated and other volunteers would fly into Houston, just show up and say they were there to help. Many had been in the South for two or three weeks before the Grace volunteers arrived.
“We had permission from Grace College to ‘adopt’ a family for, say, three months to a year,” Yeh said. “I asked six families to come and didn’t have any takers. It may be a year or two before they can go back.”
Most plan to return to their communities “but they don’t know their housing conditions,” Yeh said.
“They haven’t been back to their house,” Boal said. “Once they see it destroyed, they may change their mind and relocate. Right now they just don’t know.”
Members of NSU and community organizations arrived daily offering help or activities. The Northwestern women’s volleyball team ‘adopted’ some of the girls. Volunteers served as tutors.
There was live entertainment outside the building every day. The most interesting musical group, the Grace men thought, was a performance by the Louisiana Department of Corrections’ prisoner band.
“We went down as part of the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches and stepped into the world of the Red Cross. We tried to go down as ambassadors of God, helping our fellow man,” DeRenzo said.
“We stepped into someone else’s story, one that’s going to go on after we leave. We tried to make a little bit of difference in a monster of a situation, one person at a time.”