'Money won't do it'
A local pastor, who returned from the Gulf Coast earlier this month, says even though it's been nearly two years since Hurricane Katrina hit, families in Mississippi and Louisiana still need help.
"Every time I go down there, I come back feeling I have to go back," said Shelley Lyksett, who serves the Ellsworth, Hartland and Diamond Bluff United Methodist churches.
She was among a group of 19 volunteers who returned May 6 from Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss. This was her third trip to the area. All three were arranged through UMCOR (the United Methodist Committee on Relief).
Lyksett made her first relief trip to the Gulf Coast early in 2006, just months after Katrina passed through.
"Basically everything was gone. It was like ghost towns. Right along the coast there was nothing," she said.
Lyksett said it looked as though a bomb had exploded. "It was just tragic and very quiet - not a lot of people, no businesses."
Carpentry crews had repaired the structures of some of the houses. So for that first trip, the mission crews were put to work finishing interior walls and installing drywall.
But just buying building materials was a challenge. Lyksett said volunteers stood in line outside the Home Depot store for as long as three hours to get supplies they needed.
Still, even from the beginning, the work trips were well managed.
"There always was a goal," said Lyksett. Coordinators at local churches broke the groups into small work teams and assigned them to individual houses.
"Basically nobody was in the houses," said Lyksett of her first trip. "Everybody was in FEMA trailers or had gone somewhere else to live until they could get (their houses) back in shape."
She and other volunteers from this area when back down a second time last year and then a third time this year.
The most recent group, which left April 28, included Hudson United Methodist pastors Larry and Joan Goebel, Gene Webster of River Falls, five other people from Hudson and another 10 from other parts of western Wisconsin.
This spring Lyksett's team put in flooring, laid carpet and sanded drywall to help a man refurbish his mother's house in Biloxi.
The elderly woman hasn't been able to move home yet, but her son, who lives two hours away, comes down every weekend to work on the house.
The son's goal, said Lyksett, is to have his mother back in her home by the end of summer.
This trip Lyksett and Joan Goebel visited some of the homes they had helped repair earlier in the Turkey Creek area of Gulfport.
"It was wonderful because the people are in their homes, and their houses look so nice," said Lyksett. "They just beam from ear to ear."
Some of the Methodist volunteers are carpenters, and most of them have done repair work around their own homes. But some had few handyman skills before their first trip to the South, said Lyksett.
"A lot of them just feel that they are called to do this, and they're going to help anyway they can."
Besides, she said, there are jobs for everyone and there are always others who can teach them basic repair skills.
The local volunteers traveled in the Hudson United Methodist Church's van and stayed in churches whose facilities have been slightly retrofitted for overnight use. Showers and washing machines have been added, and the congregations invite the volunteers to use fellowship halls and classrooms for a week at a time.
Most of the work groups go down for one week, are split into teams and are assigned tasks on four to six houses.
Each team does its small part on any given project, "knowing that we're never going to be able to finish a house, but there are going to be new teams coming in when we leave," said Lyksett.
"You don't have fun, but you have such a wonderful experience," she said of the trips.
"It's going to be 20 years before the Gulf area is anywhere near back to normal," she said, emphasizing the continuing need for help.
"Money won't do it," she said. "It's going to take person power."
Along with the personal satisfaction of doing a job, volunteers are rewarded with the gratitude of the Gulf Coast residents, said Lyksett.
Residents stopped the volunteers on the streets and in parking lots to express their appreciation.
"The people down there are so gracious," said Lyksett. "They can't thank you enough."