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N. Orleans volunteers set monthly record in March

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Forget basketball. Check out “march madness” in New Orleans where record numbers of Southern Baptist volunteers from across the nation are rebuilding flooded homes. Volunteers from California to Georgia and as far north as Alaska were part of the most productive month so far. Baptist College Ministries students from Syracuse, New York, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Maryland and other universities were part of the volunteer workforce.

“In terms of man-hours of labor, our volunteers produced the equivalent of well over a half million dollars’ worth of work” in March, Steve Gahagan, NOAH construction manager said. “It was an incredibly productive month.”

College and high school students on spring break were a large part of the 5,000-plus volunteers working with Operation N.O.A.H. (New Orleans Area Homes) Rebuild — a North American Mission Board partnership with Louisiana Baptists, Arkansas Baptist Builders and Baptist Crossroads, an initiative of First Baptist Church of New Orleans. Volunteers ranged in age and background.

NOAH volunteers hung more than 1,500 sheets of sheetrock in March and worked on a record number of roofing, electrical and plumbing rough-in jobs, Gahagan said.

NOAH office manager Dianne Gahagan reported that the ministry managed nearly 2,400 of the 5,000 volunteers in March, more than twice the number for February. The 301 work orders the teams completed represent 116 New Orleans homes, seven churches, two ministry centers and five homes of local pastors. Many volunteers have served multiple times in New Orleans.

“Yale, Harvard and M.I.T. were here, too,” said Jackie James, project coordinator for the Arkansas Baptist Builders’ New Orleans project in tandem with the Kansas/Nebraska Builders. “Many of the non-Christian students said this was the most amazing trip they had ever been on.”

James said his organization –- which normally focuses on rebuilding — took on atypical work orders to make full use of approximately 1,000 volunteers managed through the two-state partnership. The group has mobilized more than 2,500 volunteers this year, nearly twice their total for all of last year.

“For this month, anything the homeowner needed done, we did -– mowing and yard work, gutting, roofing, drywall, electrical – anything,” James said. “We gutted more homes in the last two weeks than we did in all of 2006.”

The Kansas/Nebraska Builders provide the electrical expertise for the partnership, with teams coming monthly since the operation began in 2006. Lead electrician Elijah (Touch) Touchstone from Trinity Baptist Church in Pittsburg, Kan., said they brought 15 teams with a total of 154 workers and all the supplies they needed -– including 40 ladders.

“I borrowed from everyone I could,” Touchstone said. “I told folks that if they didn’t have a 6-foot fiberglass ladder to go buy one and let me borrow it for the week.”

Travis Scruggs, known as the “disaster pastor” of First Baptist Church in New Orleans, said the 1,600 volunteers in their charge were 10 times the number of volunteers in February. First Baptist’s volunteers gutted homes, mowed and cleaned yards, parks and street medians around the city.

Scruggs reported that 900 of the volunteers -– including students from Rice, Liberty, Texas A & M, University of Georgia and a church team from Anchorage, Alaska — were part of Baptist Crossroads, a five-year partnership of FBCNO with Habitat for Humanity to build 60 new homes per year. Thirty homes already have been completed in the project.

The Anchorage team was on their second spring break trip to New Orleans to work with First Baptist. Michael DuPree, student minister at Rabbit Creek Community Church (SBC), led the team of five.

“Sure, it would have been easier to just send money, but by coming here we show we care and, more importantly, we teach our students the importance of missions,” DuPree said. “They learn to go and do the same.”

The logistics of handling the spike in numbers required extra supplies, planning and long days. Scruggs said that although the month meant long hours of work, “many lives were changed.”

James said the renovations needed to handle 350 volunteers per week at the Arkansas compound –- headquartered at New Orleans’ Gentilly Baptist Church -– were completed just days before the largest groups arrived. Extra volunteer staff, extra supplies and a disaster shower unit also were brought in.

Several state conventions -– Oklahoma, Kentucky, Alabama, Baptist General Association of Virginia, the Southern Baptist Convention of Texas and the Baptist General Convention of Texas -– have partnered with Louisiana Baptists by adopting a section of the city to rebuild, also experienced a high volume of volunteers. Numbers from those groups were not immediately available.

Is March expected to be the “prequel” to the summer months?

Students made the numbers exceptionally high in March, but all three organizations said the summer is shaping up to be equally busy. James and Gahagan said that certain weeks in the summer are already filling up. Scruggs said that all college break times -– fall break and Christmas -– are busy, but second to the high volume of March.

“We are so appreciative of the tremendous numbers of young people, both high school and college, that have spent their spring breaks gutting homes, mowing, rebuilding homes and building Kingdom relationships,” said Freddie Arnold, church planter and association missionary for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. “We from BAGNO and the Louisiana Baptist Convention express our deep gratitude to them.”
Marilyn Stewart is a correspondent for the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s communications team.

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