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Volunteers get good report cards in NOLA

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Twice now, John Dibert Elementary School in New Orleans will never be the same.

The first time was when Hurricane Katrina shut the school down.

The second time was when Southern Baptist volunteers helped fix it up.

For kids still living in FEMA trailers, Dibert Elementary’s new look would make it a “sanctuary,” a school administrator told one of the volunteers.

Or, as custodian Shannon Samson said of the freshly painted walls, “The kids will be jumping up and down. It looks like a brand-new school.”

Dibert Elementary was one of four New Orleans public schools where Baptist volunteers completed painting and carpentry work orders in time for the new school year. The others: Albert Wicker Elementary, John McDonough High School and Chalmette High.

Samson and co-worker Debra Johnson -– who both lost their homes and possessions in Katrina — were so grateful for the volunteers that they personally gave them thank you cards.

“The volunteers were so friendly, they really gave us a ‘pick-me-up,'” Johnson said.

The volunteers promised to pray for the school, the administrators, teachers and students who would soon be filling its halls.

“We have walked through their classrooms and seen their neighborhoods,” said one of the volunteers, David Tucker, pastor of Sherman Baptist Church in Dry Ridge, Ky. “Having been in the environment where these kids are learning, we have a heart for who they are.”

The volunteers were part of Operation NOAH Rebuild (New Orleans Area Homes Rebuild), an initiative of the North American Mission Board, the Louisiana Baptist Convention, the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans and local churches to reach the city for Christ via post-Katrina renovation efforts as well as personal witness for Christ.

“I believe we’ve painted just about every wall of this school,” said volunteer Denise Page of Crittenden, Ky., one of the volunteers’ who worked at Albert Wicker Elementary.

“We don’t do this for the thanks. Serving others is what Christ told us to do,” she added.

Troy Peloquin, volunteer and donation coordinator for the Recovery School District, the state-legislated district to help poor-performing schools turn around, said of the NOAH volunteers’ help: “I understand why those of us who live here came back, but these guys? They paid money to come here, giving up the last of their summer vacation or family vacation to do this.

“How do you make a person like that?” Peolquin asked.

NOAH volunteers represented approximately a third of the hundreds of volunteers utilized in the district’s schools this summer and were the predominant work force at Wicker Elementary and John McDonough High.

Of the 128 Orleans Parish schools at the time of Katrina’s onslaught in August 2005, nearly 80 schools will be open this school year.

The New Orleans Index, published jointly by The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program and the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, reported in August that while the population of the city had returned to 66 percent of its pre-Katrina numbers, school enrollment 18 months after the storm stood at 40 percent.

As the school district struggled to its feet after Katrina, volunteer organizations were enlisted when contractors were in short supply. At a public forum at Oak Park Baptist Church in the spring of 2006, a church member passed NOAH’s contact information to a school official.

“We know that if you stabilize the schools you help stabilize the community,” said Steve Brown of Serve Management Group, a faith-based nonprofit organization that worked with NOAH in several schools in 2006. “Our volunteers were driven by knowing they were doing something for the kids.”

Jacquelyn Mahatha, an assistant principal at Wicker and a sixteen-year employee of the district, said that volunteers painted portions of the schools that the district was unable to get to last year in the rush to get schools open.

“The students are going to be pleasantly surprised when they come back to bright, fresh walls,” Mahatha said. “[The volunteers] have truly transformed the school.”

A July 18 USA Today article reported that of the 655,000 volunteers who had worked in Louisiana and Mississippi since the storm, 506,233 were from faith-based organizations. Of that number, the article reported that more than 175,000 were Southern Baptists.

Joe McKeever, director of missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans, said, “We are so grateful for church teams willing to come to the city and labor in unconventional ways to our inner-city schools. God is keeping the records and my guess is a lot of believers are getting great report cards!”

“The public education system is the cathedral of secular religiosity. Isn’t it amazing how God is using Southern Baptists with brooms and paint rollers to spread the light of the Gospel?” said John L. Yeats, director of communications for the Louisiana Baptist Convention. “Through generous volunteers, this city’s organizational infrastructure is discovering the power of the Gospel to transform.”

While the task of rebuilding the city may at times seem daunting, volunteer help continues to be needed to finish near-completed homes and the requests for assistance where work has not yet begun.

“We have volunteer peaks in March and [from] June through August. While the work does slow down, it can’t stop. We want to encourage volunteer teams to come from September through December,” NOAH office manager Dianne Gahagan said.
Marilyn Stewart is the New Orleans correspondent for the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s communication team. Stacey Billger, also of the convention’s communications team, contributed to this article. Prospective volunteers can learn about specific New Orleans-area needs by calling 504-362-4604.

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  • Marilyn Stewart