PORT ARTHUR, Texas (BP)–Linda Hailey had tried for three years to clear her family’s residential property that was battered by Hurricane Rita in 2005. She hoped to return her parents to a house replacing the one where she grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, and later lived with her own children and grandchildren.
When a church van drove up ready to help “out of the blue,” Hailey was “so overwhelmed. We said a prayer and they started working, helping me out,” she told a local reporter.
The team of 34 volunteers, including several families from Inglewood Baptist Church in Grand Prairie, Texas, was part of ongoing recovery work nearly three years after Rita hit the Texas coast.
Over a four-day period, the volunteers cleared the Hailey homesite along Highway 69 that also had been left in rubble from a fire. The team also painted a single mother’s house rebuilt by earlier groups of volunteers.
Observers paused to watch the crew at the Hailey homesite that included a half-dozen grade-schoolers, eight youth and several retired women. The multigenerational team’s willingness to tackle the job and their confidence in God’s provision would have silenced any skeptics.
“We have been amazed at how God has blessed our efforts,” said Jeffrey Hazleton, a field foreman for Nehemiah’s Vision, a nonprofit organization formed in 2005 by Southern Baptists in southeast Texas to help rebuild homes and churches damaged and destroyed by Hurricane Rita. “Since the storm, more than 4,000 volunteers have logged over 100,000 hours in the rebuild effort. People of all ages, backgrounds and skill levels have been the backbone of the work done for so many people who had nowhere else to turn.”
More than $4 million worth of materials have been nailed, brushed and installed in order to repair and rebuild at least 500 homes and churches through Nehemiah’s Vision.
Knowing that Inglewood Baptist had promoted their work as a family mission trip, Hazleton called on Ridgewood Church in Port Arthur to provide the group’s lodging, thinking it would be a good match for the incoming volunteers. Men and boys spread out in a recreation center while women and girls utilized three classrooms. Dustin Guidry, Ridgewood’s pastor, offered Inglewood full use of the kitchen to cook meals and the gym for meetings and recreation.
“We wanted to make this a family mission trip,” Inglewood pastor Shawn Barnard said, “because we believe in doing ministry together. We wanted to teach our children what it means to love God, serve Him, and do it together.”
The 39-year-old pastor took his turn at operating a Bobcat front-end loader while his 7- and 11-year-old sons and 16-year-old daughter disposed of debris. Six other families brought children along who pitched in wherever needed. They worked alongside more experienced senior adults and a professional contractor from the church to tackle both ends of worksite clearance to pave the way for the Haileys’ new house.
After KBMT-TV, the local ABC affiliate, aired a feature on the effort, the team received the use of a larger front-end loader, bulldozer and much-needed disposal unit. One man stopped to offer goggles and gloves, later returning with diesel fuel. While Nehemiah’s Vision was prepared to offer an assortment of tools, the job could not be completed without the provisions that came as an answer to prayer.
“We came down here not really knowing what to expect,” said Joel Owen, Inglewood’s youth minister. “It’s been amazing to watch God work, and we’ve been blessed to see how much work has been accomplished.”
Repeated complaints about Hailey’s property prompted concern that it might be seized due to the loss of a homestead exemption. After a county representative saw the progress made by the volunteer team, she planned to report on the improvements.
Hailey’s father was confined to a hospital bed in the home the family rents, but he managed to visit the site with his wife while being transported in an ambulance for a doctor’s visit. When he heard about the volunteers, he told KBMT reporter Brian Burns that he was overwhelmed by feelings of gratitude for the strangers.
“I thank them,” he said as tears began to flow.
An hour away in Fannett, another crew painted the home of a single mother who had lived in a FEMA trailer for more than two years since Hurricane Rita took the roof off her home. After the storm, Rosie Guerra’s brother offered to move in with the family and support them with his income so she could return to school. But in a matter of months, he died.
“She never lost hope,” Hazleton told the group of volunteers. “We’ve gutted the home and rebuilt it from the inside out. Now you’re going to finish the job.”
In addition to painting the exterior walls and trim, Harry Miller, a 25-year veteran of construction projects, told of building the decking and ceilings for both the front and back porches as well as making a few adjustments that put the house in shape to be occupied by the Guerra family.
Volunteer contractor T.D. Hollingshead praised the efforts of the teenagers who showed a willingness to help wherever needed. Several teens guided children in baking cookies and designing bookmarks to include in an evangelistic project for Outreach Port Arthur, a ministry of several Southern Baptists of Texas Convention churches in the southeast part of the state. After fellowship over a meal with Ridgewood members, the Inglewood team fanned out into a nearby neighborhood to pass out copies of the Gospel of John. Fathers, mothers and children took turns greeting homeowners while the pastor patrolled the area replenishing supplies of Bibles.
Youngsters also accompanied several adults in knocking on the doors of 250 apartments promoting Ridgewood’s food pantry and a Backyard Bible Club to be led by another team of volunteers the following week. Teens helped stock the food pantry the day before a team of adults, youth and children distributed boxes of nonperishable items to homebound adults.
“These folks have come all the way from Grand Prairie to deliver your groceries,” Ridgewood member Leonard Harper told a Port Arthur nursing home resident as 13-year-old volunteer Dylan Proffer celebrated his birthday by carrying heavy boxes into residences.
“What you’re doing here is as life-changing as our trip to Africa,” Barnard told the Inglewood volunteers, having recently returned with another team who worked with Southern Baptist missionaries in Zambia. “I never want to give the impression that when we leave the country it’s a bigger and better thing. You’ve made a huge impact, and we’re going to leave footprints behind.”
The Grand Prairie church is the most recent of more than 100 churches and associations to serve through Nehemiah’s Vision, which is led by board members from SBTC churches.
Tammi Reed Ledbetter is news editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.