LCMS volunteer camp opens in New Orleans

By Paula Schlueter Ross

If you’ve ever wanted to help others — especially those whose lives have been changed drastically by Hurricane Katrina — now is the time, says Rev. Glenn Merritt, disaster response director with LCMS World Relief/Human Care.

“I’m standing here 14 months [after the hurricane] in nothing but ruins,” said Merritt, speaking to Reporter from a work site in Chalmette, La., just outside New Orleans.

“The opportunity is here to do real, heart-to-heart ministry with the people of New Orleans who are hurting so desperately,” he said.

Volunteers can help, Merritt added, “by sharing the love of Christ and the wonderful Gospel of peace and joy, while at the same time helping to rebuild their homes and lives.”

Those who want to get involved in cleanup and rebuilding efforts don’t have to worry about accommodations, he says.  Camp Restore — which can houcamp restore/kitchense 240 people at a time — opened last month at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church and School in New Orleans East.

The Prince of Peace facilities — also damaged in the storm — have been repaired and renovated for use by hurricane cleanup volunteers.

“This is a top-of-the-line volunteer camp and we’re ready to go,” Merritt said.  “We just need the people.”

The camp, open since Oct. 1, is a project of the LCMS Southern District, with funding and equipment provided by LCMS World Relief/Human Care and Orphan Grain Train.  Laborers For Christ is providing on-site management for the camp, escorting volunteers to work sites and directing and overseeing repairs.

“This is a major cooperative effort to bring the maximum capacity of LCMS partners to serve LCMS congregations, their members, and their communities,” said Rev. Matthew Harrison, executive director of LCMS World Relief/Human Care.  Acknowledging that “many more volunteers are needed in the South,” Harrison described the new camp as “a milestone in our ability to reach out to hurting people.”

Camp Restore offers air-conditioned, dormitory-style housing, including showers and a dining hall, plus 18 RV spaces with electric, water, and sewer hookups.  A 45-foot truck donated by Tyson Foods was converted by Orphan Grain Train and LCMS World Relief/Human Care into a commercial-grade mobile kitchen that can provide meals for more than 300 people a day.

The camp also has an on-site chaplain, Rev. Ed Brashier, and offers regular Bible studies and worship services.

Mike Herring, a member of Peace Lutheran Church in Waverly, Neb., was among the first volunteers to stay at Camp Restore.  Herring described his acamp/dining hallccommodations there as “outstanding” and much better than he expected.

The food was so good, he said, that most of his 10-member group joked that they might have gained weight during their stay, even though they were putting in full days ripping out wet carpeting, cleaning debris from yards, replacing drywall, and painting.

Herring said a few of the area’s residents had repaired their homes and moved back in, but most had not.  Probably one home per block was restored, he said.  Many others sit vacant, overgrown with weeds and littered with debris.

Dan Baker, vice president with the Lutheran Church Extension Fund and director of Laborers For Christ (LFC), acknowledged there’s no shortage of work.  Projects include several LCMS church buildings and a “backlog” of some 300 homes of members.

Only about 7 percent of the area’s residents have returned to their homes, according to LCMS Southern District President Kurtis Schultz.  The new camp, Schultz said, “offers a unique opportunity for our brothers and sisters in Christ to witness in word and deed to the life we share in Jesus Christ to those who are in critical need.”

Although about 400 volunteers have made plans to stay at Camp Restore between now and January, many more are needed.  The camp — the only one serving the hard-hit New Orleans East area — is expected to be operational for two to three years.

“We need to get the volunteers coming [here] in order to make a significant impact on the community,” said Merritt.

Baker said the typical volunteer group at Camp Restore will arrive on a Sunday afternoon, work Monday through Friday, then leave for home on Saturday.  But volunteers may serve any number of days.  Each is expected to pay $20 per day to offset operational costs.

“This is a mission,” Baker said.  Many first-time volunteers end up coming back to serve again because it’s such “a moving experience,” he added.

“I will never be the same after meeting and seeing the people down here,” he told Reporter.  “The appreciation that the people have when you’re coming to work on their house — they’re so happy to see you, and they give you a hug, and they’re crying.

“I can’t put into words the appreciation — and the devastation — down here.”

For more information or to schedule a volunteer group, call Camp Restore toll free at (888) 248-2636 or camprestore@yahoo.com.  Or, visit the camp’s Web site at www.camprestore.org.

Posted Oct. 25, 2006

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