‘Thank God for volunteers’ | AspenTimes.com

‘Thank God for volunteers’

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

PEARLINGTON, Miss. – Pearlington residents have different opinions on everything from the federal government’s response after Hurricane Katrina to the future of the New Orleans Saints football team, but on one key topic they agree.The community wouldn’t have any chance at recovery without the thousands of volunteers who have passed through town since the mighty wind.”Thank God for volunteers. There ain’t been no government,” Pearlington resident Tim Smith said.A crew from an organization called Burners Without Borders, a spinoff from the Burning Man Festival, demolished his house and about five others in his neighborhood for free recently. For nearly six months the residents had stared at the shattered remains of their homes, and their dreams, before the volunteers brought down what was left of their structures and hauled them to the roadside for contractors for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to pick up.

Volunteers have been in Pearlington since right after the storm on Aug. 29. Many are from relief branches of churches. Others are from youth groups. Still others are plain folks coordinated by organizations like Carbondale’s fire department, which identified Pearlington as the community where it wanted to focus its aid effort back in September.Volunteers have done everything from running soup kitchens, which many residents depended on at first for hot meals, to distributing food, water, cleaning supplies and tools; and now supplying labor to build storage sheds and sheetrock homes.”Somehow people found us. People brought us everything we needed,” said Camille Lichtenstein, a longtime community resident and secretary for her Catholic parish.Outside muscle power was vital in cleaning up the church property, where the church itself was swept away by flood waters but the rectory was left in shambles. Volunteer elbow grease also helped St. Joseph’s whip its community center into shape for services and parish meetings, Lichtenstein said.

The Pearlington elementary school relocated to trailers, but its cash-strapped school district could offer little more to create classrooms. A donor from Virginia gave $60,000 for computers, according to librarian and head teacher Jeanne Brooks. Countless other donors have supplied everything from books to homespun decorations.”The outpouring of human kindness has been incredible,” Brooks said. “Seriously, without it we wouldn’t have anything.”At the community’s one and only bar, established in a huge tent while its old home in a building is renovated, the locals spot the outsiders right off. They will eventually inquire about your presence. Then, more often than not, they will thank you for being there and might even buy you a beer.Ana Weidie shows her appreciation a different way. Her son, a priest who does missionary work, provided her with an 80-foot-long mobile home to place beneath the stately, moss-covered oak trees in her yard. Weidie also received a trailer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency recently, so she sleeps there and lets volunteers stay in the larger mobile home when it is needed.

The most impressive volunteer “village” has been established by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, a national organization that uses “Out of Chaos, Hope,” as its motto.Its village features a kitchen to feed volunteers, a pantry for local residents and a distribution center for other materials, like household appliances. Volunteers are housed in sophisticated tent-like structures that unfold like accordions and are all hooked to heating systems, now, and air conditioning soon.Pearlington was the sixth Mississippi town where Presbyterian Disaster Assistance established a village. It recognized that residents there were isolated “and not the most well-off economically,” said Camp 6 Director Peter Rangelov.Camp 6 commands an impressive presence on Pearlington’s main drag. It can hold 90 volunteers and expects a nearly full contingent for the next three months. Other religious organizations and others that aren’t faith-based are welcome to use the camp to house their volunteers. There’s only one rule.

“They’re here to work. They’re not hear to promulgate or promote,” said Rangelov, who coordinates the work details for the camp.A steady stream of residents rolled into Camp 6’s headquarters Friday to sign up for various types of volunteer help, from getting a washer and dryer to help slapping up drywall. Rangelov or associates interview the residents and visit their properties before assessing their level of need.Rangelov jokes that that Camp 6 will be around until the locals boot them out. He figured that will take a while.”We are here for the long haul,” Rangelov said. “We’re here for three to five years.”

Carbondale fire department officials have also recognized since September that Pearlington needs multiyear commitments. It is starting a new phase of aid next week.Tom Dalessandri, director of Carbondale’s Pearlington Project, is heading here to coordinate volunteer labor from the Roaring Fork Valley. Four families are lined up for aid, like hanging drywall or sheetrock. When those projects are completed, four more will be selected.Dalessandri said finding needy families won’t be a problem for some time. The demand might outstrip the volunteer supply. Valley residents who want to help can call Dalessandri at the Pearlington Project, (970) 618-1347.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com

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