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Helping Vacations
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It’s summertime, and vacations are at the top of most to-do lists. While some people are headed to beaches or mountains or homes of friends or relatives, some are finding rejuvenation through service during their time away.

The youth group at my church is spending ten days on the Mississippi coast. They are participating in re-building projects in several communities. Nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina struck the gulf coast of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama, the scenery and the lives of the residents remains changed forever. Thousands of volunteers have spent their vacations helping New Orleans and other communities.

Due to the extensive destruction that spread across miles of coastline of three states, this youth group and other volunteers are finding conditions that are more associated with third world countries. For instance, air quality continues to be less than ideal with residents hacking and coughing as they breathe air that is loaded with pulverized building materials. They’ve also been warned about contaminated soil. Since so many hotels and apartments were damaged or destroyed, there is a shortage of temporary housing. Many volunteers are sleeping in tents.

So You Want to Help?

A recent article by Eric Patel in the Washington Post (Travel section, July 9, 2006) advised people who have respiratory problems to avoid traveling to the area—that they need to find other ways to help. Patel describes his experience volunteering with two different grassroots non-profit groups, including living in tents pitched on storage pallets because the soil is too contaminated to put tents directly on it (think biohazard because of the amount of arsenic, asbestos, and lead). He suggested that people interested in serving could find out about organizations that are actively re-building along the Gulf Coast by going to www.volunteermatch.org or calling 415-241-6872. Click here to read the full article.

I talked with a New Orleans resident who says there are neighborhoods that haven’t been touched since the flood waters swept through. Houses stand empty except for the mold that flourishes in the heat. This week National Public Radio ran a story about abandoned cars being removed. Despite the time and effort spent so far, there is much more that must be done.

Eric Patel’s description of the people he met resonates with the stories I’ve heard from Gulf Coast residents and their despair about ever achieving normalcy. “The locals were invariably gracious and grateful to us, but their taut faces and strained smiles attested to how thin they’ve been stretched by the storm-that-won’t-end. Their existence, they said, is ordered by an endless array of Federal Emergency Management Agency paperwork, insurance company red tape, and long waits for pay phones, food and supplies. We heard many tales of mistreatment, disrespect, and sheer incompetence.”

Wind and water erased people’s homes. Volunteers who take time to serve during their vacations help survivors realize that they don’t stand alone in the aftermath of the destructive storm.

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