ELCA NEWS SERVICE
March 14, 2007
Lutheran Students Bring Hope to the U.S. Gulf Coast
NEW ORLEANS (ELCA) -- Dressed in white a hard hat with a respirator over her face, Lisa Evans, a senior at Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Ind., said, "We're here to bring hope. We can make a big difference in just one week." Standing in front of a Hurricane Katrina-damaged house March 5 in New Orleans, Evans joined more than 800 college and university students participating in "What a Relief!" during the 2007 spring break.
What a Relief! is an opportunity for students and others in campus communities to spend their spring break helping survivors of the 2005 hurricane season rebuild. Lutheran Disaster Response is organizing What a Relief! Students participating in What a Relief! this year represent some 34 U.S. colleges and universities, 13 of which are affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). They're working in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas between February 25 and March 31.
With eight other students and two adult advisors from Valparaiso, Evans "gutted out" houses March 5-9 in the New Orleans area. Valparaiso is an independent Lutheran university.
"I came down last year and saw how much of an effect we made in just a matter of a couple of days. We got to meet the homeowners of the house we worked on, and I (witnessed) the difference we had made. So, I just wanted to come back again this year."
Evans said her volunteer experiences with What a Relief! "really opened my eyes. The world isn't as bad as we may think. People really do care, and you can help somebody else."
"What a Relief! is a great thing," according to Jessica Vermilyea, Metairie, La., state coordinator for Lutheran Disaster Response -- a ministry of the ELCA and Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS). "It gives so much credence to what (Lutherans) are doing here. It gives the ability (for people to understand) what we're going through here, so they can go back home and share the experience with other people," she said.
"The majority of our volunteers are repeat volunteers. We depend upon them to make connections with homeowners here. It's not just about the house, it's about the person. When (students) make those connections, they go home and share it with family or with other students. They (develop) a passion for (volunteer work). So, it really has been a big boost to have such a large, national effort to bring people here," said Vermilyea.
Keith Aumend, senior, Valparaiso University, is a repeat participant in What a Relief! In 2006 "we worked in New Orleans' Ninth Ward, right next to the levees. That was one of the greatest experiences in my life. I've never experienced (a disaster) so earth-shattering. (It was) that experience that instigated me to come back here again. Also, I'm from Florida, and I've been through many, many hurricanes. I've seen a lot of damage happen. But when I saw what happened here, I knew that we really had to get in and help people, because (help) is just not coming fast enough for them."
Aimee Tomasek, assistant professor of art, photography, Valparaiso University, helped to "round up" the group of students from Valparaiso for 2007 What a Relief! "I've been photographing New Orleans for about 14 years," said Tomasek. "When (Hurricane) Katrina hit I was very affected, because I have a lot of friends in the city, and it was a logical choice to come and help."
Tomasek said volunteer work "is a very humbling experience and also a great teaching device because my students, for the most part, don't know how to do any handy carpentry work," said Tomasek. "The motivation of the trip is education," she said.
"New Orleans is always the (point) of ridicule in terms of morality. People kind of see this town as a den of sin, and it's not. There are people who live here that are no different than people in other places. They raise their families here, have good values, go to church, help their neighbors, and invest in cultural and ethnic events. I think that's very often lost, based on what we see on television. I want to teach my students that this place is no different than other places when it comes to issues related to family, taking care of your neighbors and being a good citizen." Tomasek said.
Through What a Relief! more than 40 students and adult advisors from Wartburg College, Waverly, Iowa, worked March 5-9 in New Orleans and Slidell, La. Wartburg is one of 28 college and universities of the ELCA.
"I'm learning a lot about technical construction work, such as installing windows and repairing exterior wall frames," said Jessie Carver, a junior at Wartburg. Carver said this is her third trip to the U.S. Gulf Coast. "My first two trips were spent mucking out homes. On this trip, it's exciting to see actual rebuilding work taking place. It's amazing to be part of this process," she said. About 10 percent of Wartburg's student body is engaging in some kind of volunteer work across the country during the 2007 spring break, Carver said.
Aaron Hagen, a senior at Wartburg, is writing about the work of his peers for the school's newspaper, "The Wartburg Trumpet." Roland Ferrie, a student photographer from Wartburg, is accompanying Hagen.
"Our goal is to inspire more students from Wartburg to volunteer in the U.S. Gulf Coast," said Hagen. "There is still a lot of work to be done here. Many students at Wartburg don't quite grasp how rewarding this work can be. (Through our stories), we want to let students know that people can make a difference," he said.
At the start of a work week, students are led through devotions and an orientation about what to expect during their volunteer experience, work safety tips, instruction on the recommended safety apparel and gear, and more. Kurtis Smith, manager of "Camp Atonement," Metairie, La., encourages students and other volunteers to "hear the stories" that homeowners and other Louisiana residents have to share.
"The role I have here is to make sure that our volunteers are housed and equipped for the work that is to be done," said Smith. Camp Atonement is equipped to house 72 volunteers. It includes mobile bed accommodations, an outdoor dining tent and a work supplies tent. It is located on the property of Atonement Lutheran Church, an LCMS congregation.
"New Orleans has a way to go in rebuilding, and it's the volunteers that spend their time, energy and money to be here to bring hope. (Volunteers) are the ones bringing Jesus into the community by doing the work, whether it be gutting or rebuilding a house," he said.
Smith said many people across the United States "don't realize that there's still much work to do, and we continue to need people of all shapes and sizes and skills to come down and help." He said people are needed in camps, either to clean or cook for the volunteers that stay there, and highly skilled laborers are needed to work on plumbing, electr