Havens of Hope: Camps extend aid and love to hurting hurricane victims

This article was published in InSite.

On a Friday evening, Ed and Laura Phillips shouldn’t be laughing. They’ve been forced out of their home in the New Orleans area and into temporary housing more than 200 miles away. Hurricane Katrina’s vicious winds and rain left their house intact, but they can’t go home. There’s no electricity. There’s looting. There’s no work. They would fear for their safety and for that of their children, Paige, 8, and Brandon, 4.

But smiles widen their faces as they relax and swap good-humored stories with other members of their church, Iglesia Bautista Horeb, who evacuated with them.

“It’s been like one big happy family here,” Laura says, perched on a couch on the second floor of Dry Creek Baptist Camp’s The White House lodge.

At Louisiana’s Dry Creek and at dozens of camps across the Gulf States and beyond, families like the Phillips found not just shelter and food but a home and hope. Ministries opened their gates and their hearts to hundreds of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita evacuees, extending their reach beyond paid guest groups to those who couldn’t repay them with anything but gratitude.

First Response
When Hurricane Katrina began hurtling toward the Louisiana coast, Dry Creek Baptist Camp was on its off week. Most of the full-time staff members were vacationing out of state, resting and spending time with family after a demanding summer. Project Manager David Baham and his wife, Derinda, as well as Bookkeeper Janet Bogard were there when the phone started ringing August 27—and kept ringing all day and into the night.

“Please, Miss Janet, say yes,” a caller would say.

“What’s the question?”

“Can we come stay?”

The staff weren’t surprised by the calls; they had had evacuees stay with them several times in the past. What they weren’t expecting was such a long stay. And at times, there were more than 400 evacuees on site.

“It’s definitely worth it. It’s what Jesus would do,” Janet says. “I don’t think He would sit around and weigh the pros and cons. I don’t think He would call a board meeting—not when people are calling.”

Fifty miles east, in Eunice, Louisiana, Acadian Baptist Center also didn’t hesitate to take in refugees.

“It’s what we’re supposed to be about. We’re here to spread the love of God,” says Peggy Watson, administrative assistant at Acadian. “If we can’t do that now, I think we’ve kind of missed the point.”

So Great a Need
When evacuees arrived, the needs were tremendous.

Debi Morris of Judson Baptist Retreat Center in Louisiana, which hosted health-care workers and displaced Coca-Cola employees, said evacuees walked onto the property agitated, anxious, nervous, and in a defensive mode.

The retreat center took advantage of the advance notice of the refugees’ visit they had received to prepare Scripture verses and gift baskets for each evacuee’s room.

“One of the women from Coca-Cola walked into the room and burst into tears,” Debi says. “She said, ‘This is where I need to be.’”

Staff at the camps rallied to provide support. They listened to exhaustingly constant questions and fears and tales of stormy horror from their new visitors—some had driven hours in gridlocked traffic; others had spent time clinging to roofs, fighting off looters, or sleeping on a bridge. Many had lost everything.

“You can’t really share the gospel if you don’t care about the individual,” says Acadian Manager James Newsom. “When you welcome them and love them [by caring for their physical needs], then they see Jesus in you.”

Many camps went far beyond offering the necessary food and shelter. They had doctors and counselors visit, provided transportation to local schools, and arranged for recreation such as swimming and horseback riding. Dry Creek even hosted a Labor Day celebration, complete with fireworks and a barbecue.

“These people have treated us better than family. They’ve worked day and night,” Laura says. “They have T-shirts that on the back say ‘Christlike.’ They deserve to wear them.”

One Saturday, Dry Creek offered a canoe trip, but fewer than expected signed up. The reason: Several wanted to show their gratitude by working on projects around the camp.

“The maintenance director from LSU gave us hugs and cried when he left,” James says of one evacuee. “He said to me in Spanish, ‘My home is your home.’”

The Basics
While the needs were many, the camps narrowed their focus to what they perceived was most important.

Communication was key. Public announcements and phone messages were communicated at meals and on message boards. At Dry Creek, the local phone company provided four additional lines for evacuees to call relatives, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Red Cross. And the area library loaned a bookmobile containing several computers with Internet connectivity. Dry Creek Director Curt Iles and his staff even published a daily newspaper for the first week and a half the refugees were on the property.

To maintain order, foster communication, and sort out problems, Curt held regular “town meetings” with representatives from each major group of evacuees. And Judson’s staff were assisted in communication and other needs by employees from Coca-Cola’s Camp Coke.

Also vital was security. Camps worked with local law enforcement and security companies, making the safety of all a priority. Curt, for example, met regularly with county officials to keep on top of the situation and the evacuees’ needs. Clear guidelines, including curfew requirements, were handed out to each evacuee staying at Acadian.

Finally, camp staff used their connections to ensure there was adequate medical aid. Dry Creek asked their summer nurses and an EMT from a local church, among others, to assist with evacuees’ health needs, while Acadian had, in addition to other medical support, a team come from the Mayo Clinic.

Team Unity
As they met the needs, camp employees learned that staff unity was essential. At Dry Creek, Curt drew up a plan that illustrated which staff members would handle what aspects of the evacuee operation. He arranged who would take what time off—which was precious little at first for anyone.

The situation was similar at Acadian, where James quickly switched staff to roles where they were most needed.

“The staff has just been fantastic,” James says. “At first they just wanted to volunteer and help all day and all week.”

It was similar, Janet says, to having summer camp all over again—but without the staff and without the weekends off. This did not go unnoticed.

“Even in the midst of all the storms we’ve gone through, the love of God is ever present around here,” says Yvette Martin, an evacuee who lost everything but was using her master’s in social work to minister to others staying at Acadian. “You can always get an encouraging word from someone here—always.”

Community Care
Reaching out into the unknown of hurricane evacuees—some arriving with fellow church members and others with parole officers—took faith and courage, even though some staff had assisted with short-term shelter in past storms.

“It’s taken us out of our comfort zone,” Peggy at Acadian says. “It’s opened our eyes to meeting the needs, whenever, wherever they are—and not standing in judgment.”

But camp staff say they couldn’t have done it alone. Local community members and people across the nation stepped up to offer assistance.

“I felt a little nervousness in the community when this started,” James says, adding that some locals were concerned for their safety. But this was soon overshadowed by “the overwhelming love and support from people in the community and around the country.”

At Acadian, a big room featured school supplies, clothing, and more—free for the taking. And at Dry Creek, named “City of Hope” by staff, truckloads of supplies arrived, some of which had to be turned away because there was simply no more room. The staff converted their snack shop and gift shop into a “store,” in which they gave away items from shoes to shampoo for any evacuees who needed them.

Other community members offered funds—canceled guest groups had significant financial ramifications for the camps—or services. Volunteers at Dry Creek found jobs and more permanent housing for displaced individuals. A clown entertained kids one night, a manicurist stopped by to pamper women and girls, and locals did evacuees’ laundry.

At Acadian, an area church brought air jumpers as an after-school surprise for the kids. The Red Cross arrived on the scene to provide further aid.

Camp staff feel that the disaster drew the community and the camps together, breaking down barriers and informing locals about the ministries.

“[The relief efforts] are going to greatly increase the witness in the community,” James says, describing how Catholics and Baptists worked together to help the victims. “The exposure has been incredible.”

By Faith
But while the camps were grateful for community help and strove to be organized—and it was a challenge—staff members recognized that faith was a key ingredient in serving refugees.

“When we stepped over the line, the Lord just opened the windows of heaven,” Janet says, who added that she’s felt strengthened by the power of others’ prayers. “We haven’t needed for anything—except sleep.”

James, who battled situations including severe mental health issues among evacuees and on-site arrests, agrees.

“I couldn’t handle all this without trusting God to see me through,” he says. “I wake up in the morning and say, ‘Lord, help me handle whatever’s going to happen today.’”

On Mission
While the stresses of hosting people in crisis were very real, so are the camp’s mission statements. James says that Acadian’s mission is related to evangelism, spiritual growth, and fellowship.

“This is different—meeting basic needs,” he says. “But I think it fits in real well.”
And Curt of Dry Creek says the camp’s purpose is entirely fitting for their crisis operations.

“Our mission is to provide an environment where people feel the presence of God,” he says. “We’re doing that.”

Although they weren’t exactly the typical guest group, the evacuees were still at camp—with all its traditional benefits. Displaced individuals could wake up to creation’s melodies rather than sirens, gunshots, and sheer bedlam. And some even made decisions to follow Jesus.

“Christian camps are set up for this. It’s paradise for a shelter,” James says, comparing Acadian to the overcrowded shelters many other evacuees called home. “Here, [refugees] can walk around and be by themselves. They need that. It’s a stress reliever.”

While not every evacuee was upbeat, and some city-lovers found it difficult to be in rural areas, none had complaints about the camps.

“Nobody could beat ’em; they’re so sweet,” says Judson guest Stella Nunnery of husband-wife team Eugene and Debi Morris. “They try to make you feel so welcome and happy.”

Her son, Bryant, who admits camp is out of his comfort zone, adds, “I haven’t encountered—not once—a sense of negativity.”

This is exactly Debi’s goal.

“As I heard [about the chaos in New Orleans], my mission was to smile and be pleasant,” she says.

But camp staff know that praise from evacuees, well-orchestrated plans, and generous community donations were not enough to make their efforts effective.

“It’s the Lord. The Lord is in this place,” Janet says. “He’s here in the summer; He’s here the rest of the year.”