'Hope Shall Bloom' tour highlights progress of Gulf Coast recovery
Written by Jeff Woodard
February - March 2009

Natural wood siding and hearty vegetation throughout the Harry Tompson Rebuild Center in New Orleans give the open-air complex a warm, inviting feeling. Gregg Brekke photo.
A visit to the Harry Tompson Rebuild Center in New Orleans is an experience rich in sensory multi-tasking - listening to the story behind it, seeing the beauty of the physical facility, and feeling the critically compassionate role it plays in the downtown community more than three years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region.

"Homeless people rarely go to a nice place that was built just for them," says Center Director Don Thompson, offering an afternoon tour of the $1.1 million facility to 15 UCC members from eight states.

The group traveled throughout New Orleans and coastal Mississippi Dec. 8-11 on an educational mission trip, learning how One Great Hour of Sharing's "Hope Shall Bloom" program continues to provide much-needed aid. As of December 2008, Hope Shall Bloom had raised more than $6 million in hurricane relief in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.

In a collaborative effort with other faith-based organizations, the seeds of Hope Shall Bloom were planted soon after Katrina hit. Thanks in large part to OGHS' annual donation of $50,000, the center concluded its first full year of operation last fall.

"We have made this trip the past three years, and will again next year," says Florence Coppola, UCC National Executive for Disaster Ministries.

The daytime drop-in center has 11 staff members and offers restroom, shower, laundry, telephone and food-service facilities. Visitors can also see a doctor or a lawyer, get a new state ID, receive mail and obtain help finding housing and jobs.

"Volunteers are very respectful of the people who come here," says Coppola. "They wash their clothing for them; they don't just give them access to the washing machines. They dry their clothing and fold it and hand it back to them. These are people, they're not treated as numbers."

Visitors enter the front gate and are immediately taken by a wall-sized painting that depicts six Biblical scenes - from Noah's flood to the restful waters of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. "In light of our experience, we knew the mural had to be about the life-giving aspect of water," says Thompson. "You come through that door and it just feels different."

The feel is also different at Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Miss., a 90-minute drive to the east. "Hope Shall Bloom has been key to giving us the ability to do what we need to do," says Rev. Shari Prestemon, executive director of Back Bay, a community ministry of the UCC. Last year, about 1,400 UCC members came to help. The ministry has rebuilt 46 homes.

Visitors heard stirring stories of hardships endured by Back Bay Mission clients, then traveled to the coastal town of Pass Christian. Twenty-two people died and 90 percent of homes there were destroyed or damaged. The town of 6,500 is one of many along the 75-mile stretch of Mississippi coastline where 65,000 homes were lost and 67,000 extensively damaged. "They need everything you can imagine, and a lot of things you can't," says Prestemon.

The group met with Pass Christian Mayor Chipper McDermott, who expressed a deep appreciation for the UCC. "This town is not 6 miles long by 1 mile wide," he said of his rebuilding city and the support it receives. "It's 50 states long and 50 states wide. And if not for the faith-based groups, this town would have had a 'for sale' sign on it a long time ago."

Also included in the trip were tours of the hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward, where actor Brad Pitt has commissioned several architects to build affordable "green" homes; the Upper Ninth Ward, where Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis have developed 72 single-family homes in Musicians' Village, a cornerstone of the New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity (NOAHH) effort.

According to the Rev. Alan Coe, UCC Minister for Disaster Recovery, UCC volunteers have helped in New Orleans to rebuild 28 homes, clean out 847 others and are working on 15-20 homes at any given time.

A half-dozen visits to work sites were made. Property owners - many of whom have lived for more than two years in FEMA trailers parked in front of their lots - warmly greeted and thanked visitors at ever turn. Bertha Griffin, a resident of the Broadmoor neighborhood, made sure her guests saw the front-porch screens that volunteers had just installed. "They are still working, and God is still blessing us," she said. "Thanks to people like you."

Jeff Woodard is a regular contributor to United Church News. 

LEND A HAND

To learn more about volunteer opportunities with UCC National Disaster Ministries, please call Florence Coppola at 866-822-8224 x3211; e-mail coppolaf@ucc.org or visit www.ucc.org/disaster/gulf-coast-hurricanes.html.

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