Eight days before Christmas, Melinda Johnston and her 12- and 15-year old boys drove 20 hours to her parents' house in Loveland, Colo. After a brief stay, Johnston - a single mother and leader of a team of Kirkland Web developers - left her kids with their grandparents and hopped a plane to Buloxi, Miss. From there it was to Gulfport, where the Hurricane Katrina clean-up effort is still in full swing.
"You just had to get down there to help somebody," says Johnston, who made her decision around Thanksgiving to spend five days in the Gulf Coast. "I went down there thinking, 'It's been four months - how much could there be to do?' But trash is everywhere. It's hard to imagine how long it'll take to get it all out."
Through a group called Hands on USA, Johnston - who was outfitted with 10 pounds of genuine Seattle coffee by well-wishing friends - paid only for her airfare and was lodged with other volunteers in a loft of a church in Gulfport. She slept on an air mattress; the volunteers all rotated cooking and cleaning duties in the morning and evening.
"After breakfast, we'd split into teams," she says. "On my first day I helped with the mold team," and was completely outfitted with protective gear. Other teams would gut houses, clear out trees, walk dogs at the Humane Society or go to the Salvation Army distribution center to help pass out supplies.
Johnson's assignment the next day turned out to be a complete surprise.
"I got to play Santa Claus for four days. I cheated the system," she says without a hint of malice. "I went down there to do manual labor. But I knew I was making people feel great. It would make people tear up [cry], seeing this crazy redhead at their door in a Santa hat." By her last day, her little holiday troupe had grown from two to five.
To people who had lost everything, replacing Christmas decorations was at the bottom of the list. So she went door to door, dressed as Santa, lights in hand, and asked the proud residents if she could decorate their FEMA trailers or homes. This provided her the opportunity to hear people's stories, including one faithful family who reported that the water rose only to the bottom of a crucifix they had on their wall.
In a curious twist of fate, another Kirkland resident toiled just miles away in Kiln, Miss. earlier in December. Jill Sturing, who happens to attend the same Kirkland church as Johnston, "knew I had to go." She located a relief organization - Samaritans' Purse - founded by Billy Graham's son Franklin, got coverage at work and spent the first 10 days of December swinging axes and wielding shovels.
"I knew it would be physical labor but I didn't know how rewarding it would be," says the 35-year-old Kirkland native and dental office worker, who plays on an indoor soccer team.
"We went into houses and emptied them. The first layer was the ceiling tiles when the water had flooded over the roof line. We pulled the nails out of the studs, ripped out the sheet rock. The houses were just skeletons with load-bearing walls." She says that one house she worked on took 100 worker-hours to clear out and de-mold (bleach).
She worked on five houses during her tenure there, with most of it spent gutting houses - called "mud-outs." She remembers how sore her wrists were the second day from wielding a shovel for eight hours.
Like Johnston, Sturing slept in a church - in the childcare room - but was treated to home-cooked Southern meals graciously prepared by the church's men's Bible study group, who she said awoke at 4:30 a.m. to prepare breakfast. Unlike Johnston, Sturing "lived on Folgers for 10 days. I got made fun of that I survived," she jokes.
Sturing talked to two former next-door neighbors who didn't even know each other's names prior to the hurricane. During the storm, one couple swam to the other's house to take refuge in a higher floor. "Now they're inseparable and best friends," she says.
Johnston and Sturing, who are now friends, would like to go back to offer their support again. Johnston says: "You don't have to be a carpenter, nurse or veterinarian to volunteer. No special skill or talent is necessary. As our pastor would say, if you can fog a mirror there is something you can do."
Both women were impressed with how faithful and hopeful the people were. Sturing says: "One thing I was really impressed with is how strong a community can be when you're working towards a common goal, helping people get through their trials."
And Johnston remembers a sign in a bakery window near Buloxi: "The bread will rise again. We will rebuild."[[In-content Ad]]