Camp Coast Care feels somewhere between church camp and the TV series MASH, and even for an extrovert like the Rev. Joe Robinson, site director, the combination can sometimes be overwhelming.
"Who just arrived today?" Robinson calls out to some 100-plus volunteers assembled on the Coast Episcopal School gymnasium bleachers for 6 p.m. Evening Prayer and the next day's work assignments. "Well, we saved some work for you! Where are you from?"
Answers vary: Tulsa, Oklahoma; Stanton, Virginia; Loudon, Tennessee; Heath, Texas; Laguna Beach, California; and, enough cities in Alabama—Prattville, Montgomery, Anniston—to prompt a follow-up: "Is anybody left in Alabama?"
Next question up: "Who leaves today?" After the hands go up and appreciative applause rings out, Robinson instructs: "Our only expectation is you send us all your friends and all their money."
The daily ritual includes prayer, a review of the rules, and a reminder of purpose. "This is not about you or me but about the people you come to help and serve," Robinson tells the gathering.
"No one here complains about the color of the rug in the chancel or the misspelled words in the bulletin," he says. "The focus here is on the actual work of the church, about bringing God's presence to the lives of others through our labor, our time, our energy. This is what church was supposed to be about in the first place. Lives get changed while doing this work. Some will be yours."
Important, Holy, Shared by All
Volunteer doctors and nurses, a pharmacist and mental health counselor occupy a blue and white tent, pitched near the gymnasium on the grounds of the Long Beach school. The clinic, which has seen 20,000 patients since it opened, within weeks of the hurricane, is sandwiched between tents that house the 'Katrina Boutique' where donated clothing is sorted and distributed, and a tool shed where chain saws, wheelbarrows, ladders, axes and a host of other tools stored have been used in clean up, recovery and repair of more than 700 cracked and shredded homes to date.
Approximately 182,000 hurricane survivors have been served by the camp, a joint ministry of Lutheran/Episcopal Services of Mississippi. Shortly after Katrina struck August 29, the camp was organized, using tents, recreational vehicles, trailers and the school gymnasium as a combination volunteer sleeping area and cafeteria. It continues to serve as a distribution center for food and clothing, and cleaning and personal hygiene products, the clinic and a base for the work crews.
All with a permanent staff of eight and a total of 3,000 volunteers thus far, from a variety of faiths and denominations even "including a Confucionist," and some from as far away as South Africa, Russia, and Bermuda, who arrive and leave daily, Robinson says.
"All work here is important. All work here is holy. All work here is shared by all of us," Robinson tells the group regularly. It takes 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.
But, five months later, the recovery work is massive and ongoing, Robinson acknowledges. Salvage and repair work has yet to begin on some homes; many people have not returned. Officials list the death toll at more than 1,300 lives and damages in the billions of dollars on the Gulf Coast. According to the Red Cross, Katrina destroyed 68,729 houses and apartments in Mississippi and another 65,237 suffered major damage and an estimated 100,318 had minor damage.
The disaster takes a personal toll, said Martha Kirkley, a marriage and family therapist and volunteer. Post traumatic stress disorder is a fact of life for many survivors, as is increased alcohol and spousal abuse, insomnia, anxiety and panic attacks and difficulty making decisions.
"I saw a woman the other day who'd been living in her car for three months," she said. "I saw another woman, whose husband was a shrimper. He tried to stay on his boat during the hurricane and was blown away. The roof of their home was blown off, also. She couldn't stop crying, was having panic attacks, like anyone experiencing too much stress."
Practical snafus take a toll, too, such as hundreds of unusable FEMA trailers, insurance company delays, that indicate a three-to-five year recovery period, Robinson said. He urged active volunteer participation for the long haul. "The spirit of the people in the camp is wonderful."
Robinson moves from the onsite double-wide trailer that houses staff office space to another trailer a few yards away that serves as his living quarters. A plastic pink flamingo and two chairs are perched by the door.
"There is a willingness of volunteers to do a variety of jobs," he says. "There is worship, with a distinct Episcopal flavor, a community aspect and a theology of abundance in a place of great scarcity."
'A Wonderful Spirit, A Monastic Feel'
For Van Bankston, assistant site manager, the camp has a monastic feel "of working, praying, and eating together with a sole purpose in mind. We joked in the beginning that this wasn't the real world, because it was so disconnected from our real lives, but it has become the real world," said the former interior designer and artist.
He arrived six days after the hurricane to "devastation everywhere. Streets were blocked, people were walking around in a daze, electrical wires were down. The bishop gave us the school gym, where three walls had been blown out. Eighty-five percent of the roof was gone," recalled the 51-year-old Mississippi Delta native.
"There was no water or air conditioning. It was 112 degrees. We had to start every day working out one problem after another. Nobody had done this before; no one had lived through anything of this magnitude. But, it was amazing," he continued. "The next morning, an 18-wheeler arrived at the school from Canada. They had food and water and we just said, 'Good morning and thank you and opened the doors. We knew more people and supplies would be coming.'"
Camp Coast Care is "the best mental, physical and spiritual space I've ever been in, in my life," declares Angel Scott, 27, religious studies major at the University of Oregon in Eugene who went online as soon as she heard about Katrina. "The Diocese of Mississippi was the only church asking for volunteers. I said, 'that's me.' I bought a plane ticket five minutes later." That was last October; Scott supervises the loading dock where crates of water, food and medical supplies are delivered.
"The presence of the Spirit here has been absolutely amazing," says Scott, who just received a shipment of fresh oranges from Florida and a boatload of mini Chiquita bananas. "Up till now, I've never been open to seeing God's grace working in the world. Minute by minute, I see God's grace. Someone shows up with the skills we need. A truck arrives at the moment we need it that we haven't expected. It is a profound experience of community. People show up from all over the country with the sense of purpose to serve the people of Mississippi."
"It's wonderful," said Frankie Threlkel, 72, a Pass Christian resident whose home sustained major structural damage and a medical clinic patient. While waiting for her cousin so they could go 'shopping at the grocery store' together, she praised volunteer efforts. "It's wonderful work. It makes me know somebody cares."
'Best Witness is Witness'
The difficult part, says Robinson, is figuring out the next steps. "There are no models for anything of this magnitude," he said. "But the good news is God and God's people are being served here.
"We need as much as possible for bishops and clergy and laity from across the country to come and see the needs and the response," he added. "They will be better ambassadors as a result. The best witness is witness. Nobody leaves here unchanged."
Pat Patterson, of Stanton, Virginia, agreed whole-heartedly. "This place reaches the most people with the biggest heart. We'll keep coming back until they don't want us anymore," said Patterson, who celebrated her 62nd birthday at the camp.
"There's a reason for being born and I feel like this is the reason. It's great here! I love it!" she said of her duties as parking lot attendant. "I am the first and last person people see when they come here. I feel like the bookend of their experience.
"When we came back in November, people said, 'why are you going to Mississippi? Katrina's all cleaned up,'" said Patterson, a Unitarian Universalist. "It's not cleaned up, but I can see an improvement. I thought back in November that this will never be cleaned up, but we're getting there. Little bits by tiny bits."