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Beverly Hills parishioners team up for Gulf Coast

By Pat McCaughan
2/6/2006
[Episcopal News Service]  Barbara Davis had just returned to the Southland from a week of clearing debris, helping to remove drywall and shattered plaster and to gut cracked Gulf Coast homes, but the 24-year-old Santa Clarita resident was already eager for a repeat visit.

"I'd love to go back in March, and any other later trip that you might plan," she said. Davis was among a five-woman team which All Saints, Beverly Hills, commissioned and sent January 21-28 to Camp Coast Care, a relief center housing volunteers aiding the survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

And even though All Saints raised about $85,000 initially for hurricane relief, Davis said she made the trek because: "Writing a check just wasn't enough. It's amazing the amount of devastation. One community, Waveland, was completely wiped out. There was not a single building left."

The Beverly Hills congregation responded to the call of Bishop Duncan Gray III of Mississippi and the guest speaker for the annual Los Angeles diocesan convention in December. "Come and see for yourselves," Gray charged the gathering. "But when you come," he added, "be prepared to stay for awhile."

"Awhile" turned out to be a week for Davis, along with Heather Kallemeyn, Mary Krueger, Nicola Lubitsch and Ginny Sekon, who spent their time on clean-up crews and other tasks such as: registering survivors for services, sorting and assisting clothing donations and selections from the 'Katrina Boutique' as well as with over the counter medications. The team even served up meals, washed dishes and collected trash for pick-up. Still, other volunteers unload food shipments on the docks and aid meal preparation and even serve as parking attendants.

"At first I thought, this is for young people," said Ginny Sekon, a retired retail professional who took the time away from a part-time position at the Museum of TV and Radio in Beverly Hills. "But," she added, "there are all kinds of things for everyone to do."

Heather Kallemeyn said she wanted to do something tangible, hands on, for hurricane survivors. "I lived in New York City during 9/11 and I felt completely paralyzed," the aspiring actress recalled. "This time it's different. This time I wanted to make an impact." She said her efforts on the clean-up and work crews made her feel she "accomplished something, even though the need is still so tremendous.

"The devastation here is beyond anything I could have imagined," Kallemeyn said. "Just when you think it can't get any worse, it gets worse. It's not going away anytime soon. And these people are waking up to it, everyday. And yet, they're so grateful that we just showed up to help. The generosity of spirit I've experienced here, among both survivors and volunteers, is incredible."

"All work here is important. All work here is holy. All work here is shared by all of us," the Rev. Joe Robinson, site director, told the group during Evening Prayer. He said it takes between 35-40 volunteers to staff the camp, in addition to work crews. The camp can accommodate up to 200 volunteers a day at an operational cost of $20 per volunteer. It is one of three similar campsites engaging relief work on the Gulf Coast. New volunteer arrivals and departures, scheduled through the camp office, are honored daily and many make return trips.

Camp Coast Care, a joint ministry of Lutheran/Episcopal Services of Mississippi, is located on the grounds of the Coast Episcopal School in Long Beach, several miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. Shortly after Katrina struck, the camp was organized, using tents, RVs, trailers and the school gymnasium as a combination sleeping area and cafeteria. It continues to serve as a distribution center for food and clothing, and cleaning and personal hygiene products, a free medical clinic and to sponsor work crews to assist in the clean up, he said.

Camp Coast Care has served about 182,000 survivors and its clinic has treated about 20,000 patients, said Jennifer Knight, who organized the medical clinic. To date, about 3,000 volunteers from a variety of faiths and denominations, from all over the United States and Canada and some from as far away as Russia and South Africa have responded to appeals for volunteers.

But, five months later, more volunteers are needed, as well as church partners. Robinson estimated recovery work will continue for the next three to five years.

Mississippi Churches: Partners Needed

All Saints is also partnering with St. Peter's by-the-Sea in Gulfport, a 103-year-old congregation and one of six coastal churches destroyed by Katrina. St. Peter's rector, the Rev. Edward O'Connor, jokingly refers to it as St. Peter's in-the-Sea. But the good news, O'Connor adds quickly, is: "We have a wonderful opportunity to do things we've never done before."

The congregation has been meeting at a local Presbyterian church and is discerning whether to rebuild or to relocate. With the help of partners like All Saints and about 17 others across the nation, O'Connor believes the vestry may elect to rebuild in the same location. But he expects a "significant gap" between insurance settlements and rebuilding costs and hopes for continued prayers and financial support.

Currently, the Beverly Hills congregation's goal "is to keep working with Camp Coast Care and with St. Peter's as they decide whether to rebuild," said the Rev. Jimmy Bartz, All Saints' associate rector. "I'm so happy the folks in our community have chosen to respond in this way."

The show of support, not just for St. Peter's, but in overall response to the disaster, has been overwhelming, O'Connor said. Meeting with All Saints team members is one of the "neat benefits of this whole process," he added.

"A vision is welling up of St. Peter's as a cultural arts center in downtown Gulfport, where people can talk about difficult issues—social, theological and political issues and where the social ministry and social Gospel is alive and well."

Meanwhile, All Saints is preparing to send another team to Camp Coast Care March 11-18, and possibly a third trip, said Jennifer Rust, trip coordinator.

Former St. Peter's senior warden Earlene Sawyer, who hosted a reception for the team added: "We're just so glad that you're here. It helps us to know that we're not forgotten."

For more info about the camp, visit: http://www.campcoastcare.com.