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Southern Baptists, Red Cross join in effort to move evacuees

HOUSTON (BP)–A cooperative strategy developed between Southern Baptists in Texas and the American Red Cross could help displaced Hurricane Katrina evacuees relocate from shelters to homes across the country.

What began as an effort by individual Texans either to get evacuees from overflowing shelters to permanent housing or to reunite them with families separated by the storm soon swelled to a national movement coordinated by the Red Cross that can be implemented by individual Southern Baptist churches utilizing existing busses or vans.

Carolyn Shell, American Red Cross partner services voluntary agency liaison in Houston, said previous experiences working with Southern Baptist volunteers gave her the confidence that such a program could succeed. In a prepared statement, she said, “I have worked in Louisiana with the Southern Baptist Convention on many disasters and they don’t come any finer in my books.”

The two organizations have an established working relationship in addition to written cooperative agreements called Statements of Understanding. With the proverbial “red tape” out of the way, the Red Cross was able to quickly verify the validity of the offer by a network of Southern Baptists.

That offer came from Texan Doug Hixson and countless unnamed volunteers in the Lone Star State who proved their interest in caring for the evacuees by actually implementing the transportation plan suggested to the Red Cross. Hixson, small groups and missions pastor at Inglewood Baptist Church in Grand Prairie, was convicted of his need to do something to help as he watched the plight of the evacuees on television trapped in the wretched conditions of the New Orleans Superdome.

Similarly, Donna Heard and Traci Sconyers learned of a family separated by the chaos of the evacuation and sought to reunite them. Sconyers, in Wylie, Texas, paid to have Vincent Hall, 15, bused from a shelter there to his mother, Samantha, in a shelter in Houston. Heard both took Vincent’s mother to the Houston bus station for the reunion with her youngest son and drove to San Antonio to gather the rest of the Hall family to reunite them.

And Tina Forflund and Maidie Yale offered their assistance to help a mother find her mentally handicapped adult son, Willie Brown, who did not make it to the Dallas-area shelter to which she was assigned. Forflund, a member of Memorial Baptist Church, had been working with evacuees at the Dallas-area shelter when she met Frankie Carrington, a New Orleans evacuee who had been separated from her son during the transfer to Texas.

Forflund, along with Yale, another shelter volunteer, were working with a local television station on a story about Brown when his mother thought to search through the Social Security database. A search revealed Brown had cashed a Social Security check in Texarkana. Mother and son were reunited when Brown was found at the north Texas shelter.

Each of these individuals took matters into their own hands and spent their own time and money getting families and individuals into places with some semblance of normalcy.

Upon seeing all of the New Orleans residents stranded in the Superdome, Hixson thought there must be something he could do to help. After several inquiries, someone, he said, sent him a link to the Louisiana Baptist Convention website where a plea was posted for churches to bring their buses to the Superdome and drive people to safety. So he recruited the help of a furloughed missionary and the two set off in the church’s 26-passanger bus for the seven-hour drive to Baton Rouge.

After some initial confusion upon arriving at a designated site, Hixson drove to a shelter in Baton Rouge and told the Red Cross representatives he was there to help transport people to where they needed to go. But the situation there was no better. “I hit a wall,” Hixson said. He was told he could take some training and then offer his assistance, he recalled, describing “a general state of confusion.” He told Baptist Press he couldn’t recall a time when there were too few people in charge of a situation, but this was one instance of it.

After an exhausting day, Hixson and the missionary were offered accommodations in the home of a couple volunteering at the shelter. The next day, the two men were allowed to take 26 people from the shelter to permanent places outside of Louisiana. The 12-hour trip delivered one man to Jackson, Miss., and then the others to Grapevine, Texas, where they eventually received housing with help from area churches.

Hixson returned to Baton Rouge on Labor Day at the request of the Red Cross anticipating another busload of passengers. Instead, he was given six people to relocate to Houston. That 1,200-mile trip — Grapevine to Baton Rouge to Houston to Grapevine — seemed like a lot of time, money and effort expended for such a small number of people. But, Hixson said, he knew he had accomplished what he set out to do, with those families now where they need to be.

While in Baton Rouge, Hixson met fellow Texan Harriet Halkyard, a Red Cross volunteer assigned early on to the Baton Rouge post. She recounted Hixson’s efforts to Red Cross officials, noting that the Southern Baptist church staffer had shown what could be done by one individual.

What could be accomplished, Halkyard and Hixson surmised, if volunteers across the country agreed to help relocate shelter residents to permanent housing throughout the nation? How many churches across the country have vans and buses they could use to help effect the delivery of evacuees to their new homes? Hixson wondered.

The resources and willingness are available, but they needed an organization to champion the cause on a national level. What began as a grassroots effort has become the nationwide transportation system Hixson and Halkyard had hoped it would be.

A reporter with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention heard Hixson lay out the plan and shared the idea with John Avant, the North American Mission Board’s evangelism vice president. Within a day, he responded to the inquiry by e-mail, stating, “I love seeing Southern Baptists’ creative love in action in all this. We have been working like crazy on several initiatives. I am forwarding this to others to see if your plan is a fit.”

Soon, NAMB strategy coordinators studied the initiative to make it work. Meanwhile, Halkyard gained the attention of Shell at the Red Cross and a promotional flyer was conceived, approved by all parties and distributed to evacuees. The flyer also provided a means of promoting NAMB’s “Houses of Hope” plan for housing evacuees.

The SBTC and NAMB have been championing the issue, with NAMB prepared to direct inquiries about transportation to the SBTC, where a webpage linked from www.sbtexas.com/katrina explains the process. “Once the Red Cross has given the client the flyer which has the instructions on how to request transportation, we are essentially out of the picture,” Shell explained. Participating churches can access the site through an established e-mail account. They would then learn which evacuees have requested transportation, where they want to go and how many people are in their group.

Shell said, “The concept is that, if a client wants to go to Oklahoma City, a Baptist church there would want to contact the client via e-mail, find out more about them, such as where they are currently located, and then determine if the church wishes to help out. The communication will be via e-mail between the client and the transporting church.

“What is nice about this is that the evacuee family has someone picking them up, taking them to their city of choice and some support from the faith community when they get there. Of course, if they have any emergency needs they can contact the local Red Cross chapter,” Shell noted. Transporting churches must give the evacuee family the name of the driver on church letterhead to verify their affiliation with Southern Baptists.

Individual churches assume liability when they take responsibility for transportation. Through contact with the families, transporters can anticipate the cost for travel and the possible need to provide a meal or housing en route. Other Southern Baptist churches might agree to house the traveling parties at some mid-point location for long-distance trips.

“This is an example of the kind of entrepreneurial and sacrificial service taking place all over Texas and by Southern Baptists all over the country,” SBTC missions director Robby Partain said. “Katrina was, and is, a tragedy for many people. But Katrina is also a time for Jesus’ church to shine — and she is.”
Bonnie Pritchett is a correspondent for the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, on the Web at www.sbtexas.com.

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