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Volunteers’ lives transformed as God uses them in disaster relief

GRAPEVINE, Texas (BP)–When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, destroying towns, homes and possessions, victims’ lives were changed in an instant. However, as evacuation sites opened to bring aid and comfort in the devastated region, many volunteers got their first taste of disaster relief work and found that Hurricane Katrina changed their lives as well.

A seminary student, a homemaker, a nurse and two legal professionals were among the newcomers to Southern Baptist Disaster Relief who rushed to meet the basic needs of Katrina’s victims, sharing the love of Christ and being blessed by the effort.

After enrolling at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, Phil Warlick was still looking for a part-time job. “I made the decision to go [as a volunteer] based on the need and the fact that … I didn’t have any work commitments holding me back,” he said, adding that he accepted one of two job offers while away volunteering.

“Missing a class and the time away from my family was a small price to pay compared to the suffering of the folks in Louisiana. God put that opportunity in my path, and I couldn’t just turn my back.”

Joining a Southern Baptists of Texas Convention disaster relief unit working through a Salvation Army kitchen in Kenner, La., Warlick learned nearly all facets of the operation. “I helped with preparing and cleaning the food containers, cooking the food, working inventory and supplies and feeding people from the canteens,” Warlick said. “I was also given the opportunity to spend one night in New Orleans to help feed the citizens, law enforcement and media there.” While there he also visited with several residents around the French Quarter.

Charmaine Fenstermacher, a homemaker from Southlake, Texas, made a similar split-second decision to join a team leaving the day after she completed disaster relief training at the SBTC’s offices in Grapevine in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Fenstermacher first learned of the opportunity as prayer requests were being shared in a Bible study at Memorial Baptist Church in Grapevine.

Each member of the mostly middle-aged Bible study group eventually found a way to be available in the aftermath of the storm. One woman with years of experience photographing students for identification cards learned of the need to streamline the processing of disaster relief volunteers and obtained a machine that created the I.D. cards with far less labor. Others hopped in their cars to transport evacuees lodged at a nearby Hilton to apartment housing. Many of the women became involved through Southern Baptist churches that had adopted families of evacuees to provide clothing, furniture, food and ongoing support.

“When I went to the training I knew I was going to do something, even if it was just a mile from my home,” Fenstermacher told the Southern Baptist TEXAN. She heard SBTC missions division assistant Cindy Davenport describe the need for people to leave the next day and knew that her friends from Bible study had children at home or other responsibilities that prevented them from leaving so soon. With her own daughter and son in college, Fenstermacher knew she had the freedom to go and began making the list of items to purchase.

“They mentioned buying a Therma-rest bed roll and I’d never even been camping in my life. I’d never even slept on an air mattress. Things like bug spray — just weird stuff like that,” she said. After obtaining her provisions, she packed and drove out on Sunday afternoon, arriving at a cabin near Baton Rouge at 1:30 a.m. on Monday where women on the disaster relief team were gathering.

“It was just like camp — there were wall-to-wall women.” Inadvertently awakening several of the women, she heard one say they had to get up at 3 a.m.

“It was dark and we didn’t know what we were going to be doing, but there was a sense of excitement and we actually felt rested,” she recounted, strange as it seemed to say after so little sleep.

“I’ve never really experienced organized chaos,” Fenstermacher said of the disaster relief food operation as it moved into full swing. “The concept was organized, but everything was very chaotic. Everyone had a purpose and ours was to serve in any way, shape or form to get food and beverages out.”

She recalled SBTC disaster relief director Bill Davenport’s comparison to hiring people off the street. “You don’t know anyone’s qualifications. There are different personalities and lots of Type A people used to being leaders. Everyone just volunteered — some cleaned out bathrooms, others cooked. You didn’t care what you were doing. I didn’t know anyone as I was meeting strangers, but we all had the same purpose. We bonded so quickly because we had the same goal.”

Billy and Tammy Wolfe and Dacia Newton, all from Lubbock, Texas, answered the call to help after seeing Katrina’s destruction. Wolfe is an attorney and senior partner with Wolfe and Associates and his wife is a paralegal. Dacia Newton is a student at Texas Tech University majoring in human development and family studies.

“Neither [she nor her husband] had ever volunteered before and really weren’t sure what to expect,” Tammy Wolfe said. “I will tell you that God would not have allowed us not to help! He poked and prodded at our hearts all week until we absolutely knew He wanted us out there.”

The Wolfes and Newton helped register evacuees who arrived at the Red Cross shelter in Lubbock. “These were people that had literally been rescued by helicopter earlier that same day,” Wolfe said. “Most had been stranded in their apartments without electricity, water and food. They were still in their dirty clothes. Some had shoes. Others did not.”

The evacuees shared horrific accounts of their days trapped in New Orleans homes. “They told us stories of how dark it was at night,” Wolfe said. “There was no moon during the five days they were stranded. They were forced to leave their doors open because inside it was about 110 degrees. All night they worried about the bugs, snakes and other animals that might come in with them, and then they worried about the gangs and other individuals that would hurt them in the darkness. They could hear screams and gunfire at night. Some talked about the alligators that were in a frenzy eating the dead bodies around their building.”

Arriving in Lubbock was the beginning of healing for many of the evacuees, Wolfe added. “Most of the people we met were still in shock and were just incredibly grateful to be alive and to be here. Most had never heard of Lubbock before they arrived here but within hours had started to feel like part of our community. From the minute these people walked off their buses that night they were hugged and loved on by everyone that saw them. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever witnessed: to see God open the hearts of His people in such a mighty way -– right in front of my eyes.”

Newton’s experience with evacuees was just as profound. “As the families sat down in front of me, they hadn’t even been able to take showers,” she recounted. “As they told me their stories, they had tears running down their faces as well as tears down my cheeks. I heard everything from families who had been on their roofs for three days and nights without food and water and fathers having to lay on top of their children to keep the winds from carrying them off into the water.”

The open hearts of the volunteers led to opportunities to share the love of Christ with the evacuees. “I prayed with every family that sat down with me,” Newton said. “I built a relationship with a lot of people out there. One lady told me that she didn’t even feel this loved at her own home and she never wanted to go back. They ask why we are doing so much for them. That is my favorite question. I get to answer because Jesus Christ’s love inside me flows over so I can share that same love.”

Wolfe believes many evacuees not only will start a new life in Lubbock but will also find new life in Christ as a result of their ordeal. “We were able to have three families with us at church and members are now helping them with setting up house,” she said. “A lot of these families want to stay in Lubbock and we believe it will be a great opportunity to start over for most of them. Most of these people don’t know Jesus, so God has put them in our area so that we can tell them about Him.”

As hurricane victims begin to rebuild their lives, volunteers find their own lives altered in ways they could have never imagined. “Every night when I left, my heart was so heavy, but light at the same time,” Newton said. “Each one of them has touched my life in a way I will never forget, and I pray I am able to do the same by just showing Jesus Christ in love.”

A great sense of appreciation for the blessings in his own life remains with Warlick as he looks back at his experience as a volunteer. “There are so many things we take for granted. As a new seminary student, it was very refreshing to see Christians working together so well. It was a tough environment and days were long, but despite frustrations everyone kept a positive attitude because they knew they were serving God’s purpose. This trip reminded me that God is so much bigger than any of our problems — even a disaster like Hurricane Katrina.”

“I will always want to volunteer after this experience,” Tammy Wolfe said. “I realized again how incredibly blessed I am and was reminded that God expects more from those He has given more. That’s us. God reminded us that we are all His children no matter what color we are, no matter our social status or place in society — we are all His. What my husband and I received from these people is more than we could have ever given to them. God truly does send the weak to lead the strong.”

Fenstermacher remembers how bad she felt that they had nothing but donated egg rolls to share with a nursing home where dozens of residents had been abandoned by the staff. “I expected a lynching, but they raised their hands and cheered, praising God for the egg rolls. They kept saying, ‘Thank you, Texas. We love Texas!”

Like many of the new class of volunteers, Fenstermacher noticed the difference in working in a faith-based ministry. “No one had a fear of speaking about God. Everybody was saying, ‘God bless you,’ or wanted to tell their stories of how God helped.” She listened as a strong fireman fell apart crying because he was missing nine family members. “‘Do you know Jesus?’” she asked, hearing him tell of his own faith and conviction that he’d be reunited with family on earth or in heaven.

Fenstermacher remembers one woman who took both of her hands, looked in her eyes and said, “Thank you, friend,” after receiving the provision of food and caring words relaying the love of God.

Upon returning to Texas, the phrase kept coming to her mind and Fenstermacher got out her dictionary to review the definition of friendship. “It is one showing affection towards another. That’s what Jesus did. It’s so simple. That’s what I need to do more of — being there for people, being a friend.”
Stephanie Heading & Tammi Ledbetter write for the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

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  • Stephanie Heading & Tammi Ledbetter