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Small church shows big heart for storm victims

 


Small church shows big heart for storm victims

Sept. 6, 2005       

By Jane Dennis*

DUMAS, Ark. (UMNS) — Like churches across the South, First United Methodist Church is serving as home to shocked and numb people who were forced to flee Hurricane Katrina.

Led by church member and high school Spanish teacher Linda Weatherford, the small red-brick church at Dumas has been transformed into a bustling shelter that offers not only a place to rest but information and assistance to many who have lost everything in the catastrophic disaster. Leaders of the United Methodist Church’s Arkansas Annual (regional) Conference leaders consider it a model program.

“We just jumped in and did it,” Weatherford says.

In little more than a day, the shelter was set up and ready for its first residents. Signs along the highway running through town made it easy to find the shelter. In the early hours of Aug. 29, the day the storm hit, church members even went in search of evacuees who had stopped along the highway or had run out of gas.

Home to about 430 members, the Dumas church is sheltering 70 hurricane evacuees, ranging from a 5-week-old baby to older adults in their 70s. The shelter is swarming with dozens of church volunteers and others from the community trying to make the temporary tenants comfortable, ease fears and address needs.

Every classroom, meeting room, nook and cranny is filled with cots and the few personal items those racing away from the Louisiana and Mississippi coast could grab. To give the visitors as much privacy as possible, family groups are housed together where possible.
 
There’s a community room where younger children play and make crafts, a youth area with couches and a TV where the teens hang out, and a study/quiet room. The resident parents have set a 9 p.m. curfew for children and youth.

A separate dining area has been expanded into the adjoining fellowship hall in order to accommodate the crowd, which at mealtimes includes additional displaced people staying at area motels.

Each person who arrives gets a “relief bag” with a towel, blanket, toiletries and other items. Since the church does not have shower facilities, a portable shower truck is parked at the rear of the property.

Church volunteers are assigned a host of duties, including washing towels and clothes, cooking and serving, staffing the reception area and cleaning up the shelter.

Weatherford and her team have ensured that 26 school-age children of displaced families are enrolled in the local public school. The group includes several teenage boys from the hurricane-affected region who attended inner-city schools with no athletic programs. The boys were amazed at the gymnasium, football stadium and track at the school in this community of 5,000 residents. After shyly asking if they could play football, they were handed purple-and-gold football jerseys. Now they’re on the team!

At a community meeting, shelter residents received information about medical assistance, mental health counseling, schools, child care, banking, temporary housing and other topics. The police department shared information about the recovery and rescue effort, road conditions and availability of gasoline.

As a result of contacts in the community, 11 adult evacuees staying at the Dumas church have found temporary jobs, including welding, driving a truck and working in a local plant.

“You just do it. You have to move fast,” says Terri Ratliff, wife of the Rev. Henry “Buddy” Ratliff, Dumas First pastor.

“We have plenty of volunteers. We’ve been inundated with offers of food, clothes and other help. What we’re telling people now is if they really want to help, buy a $25 or $50 phone card we can give these people so they can try to reach their family, or a gift card to Wal-Mart or to buy gas.”

“Words can’t explain how this church came through for us,” says Donald Blair, a single parent who escaped New Orleans with his three young sons. “They have done a wonderful job of helping us out.”

“God really guided us here,” says Kimberly Boudreaux of New Orleans.

“This place is full of angels,” says Don Weeks, coordinator of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission for the Arkansas Conference. “It’s amazing what they have done to help these desperate people.”

*Dennis is editor of the Arkansas United Methodist, the newspaper of the United Methodist Church’s Arkansas Area.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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