California Church Opens Arms to New Orleans – and New Friends


Editor’s Note: Yesterday I started a multi-part series based on my visit to New Orleans last month to see rebuilding efforts more than five years after Hurricane Katrina. I profiled St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Pacifica, CA., which sends a work group down every winter to help rebuilding efforts through a group called Project Homecoming. Today I continue the profile, highlighting how by reaching out to New Orleans, church members are reaching out to new friends in their own local area.

NEW ORLEANS – When members of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Pacifica, CA., started heading to the Gulf Coast every winter to help rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina, they were so passionate about their visits, that passion became infectious.

Subcontractor Paul Wayne handles a door that Pastoral Associate Ellen Rankin, of Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, is about to paint.

Five years after the annual trips started, the work groups that go down include friends, family, people from other churches and faiths – even people who don’t go to church. And even those who can’t come with the work groups participate by either donating to the cause, or getting involved in other charities in the San Francisco Bay Area where they are located.

“It’s nice St. Andrew collects people and brings them along,” said Ann Mason on last month’s trip. She attends the Unitarian Universalists Church in San Mateo. After talking up the New Orleans trips at her own church, the congregation is sending a youth group to work here in June.

Pacfica drywall subcontractor Paul Wayne has come back multiple times after hearing about the trips from a St. Andrew member at a party. He’s Jewish, but he said it makes no matter. He enjoys working with his St. Andrew friends year after year.

Wayne is one of many Bay Area contractors who now spend their annual vacations with the St. Andrew church group. He and another contractor on last month’s trip, Mark Huff, who attends Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, said they recognized on their first visits how needed skilled workers were in New Orleans.

In addition to having collected a loyal band of contractors, the church group has found friends and co-workers who can’t go on the trips, but gladly donate money to make the annual trips a reality, or to directly help out those in need in New Orleans.

In fact, two elementary school teachers who go on the trips during winter break raise money from their students at Peninsula schools.

Diane Goldman said she started collecting “Change for Change” from her school in Menlo Park. This year students and parents donated $700; Goldman chipped in some to purchase an $850 Home Depot card that she brought with her to give away to a family helped by Project Homecoming.

Fifth grade teacher Gillian Parkhurst from Menlo Park took a cue from Goldman and did her own spare change drive with students. She found a fifth grade class in New Orleans that her students became pen pals with, and have even spoken with on Skype. She was able to visit the New Orleans pen pals during the February work trip.

Reaching out and becoming more connected to the people of New Orleans has inspired the St. Andrew congregation to become more connected to its own community along the way, church members said.

One of the trip organizers, Half Moon Bay resident Berni Schuhmann, said she believes St. Andrew is more of a “doing church” in the Pacifica area since the trips started. She and fellow trip leader Lisa Angelot said church members who can’t make the annual trek are getting involved in local efforts such as Rebuilding Together and Relay for Life.

“It’s been really good for our church…this mission stuff, it just seems to open the door to more,” said Angelot.

Tomorrow: Annual New Orleans work trips are a family affair.

This story is featured in the  Good Neighbor Stories 2013 Datebook! Start every day feeling good about the world!

Order Your Copy Today!

Five Years Out From Another Major Disaster: Good Neighbors Still at Work in New Orleans


Editor’s Note: Last month I spent several days in New Orleans and got to see some of the on-going rebuilding efforts more than five years after Hurricane Katrina. Each day this week I’m featuring stories of  people and organizations that are working together to help restore homes and lives. After the massive destruction in Japan last week, these stories point to the need for long-term commitments to help damaged regions rebuild, and give hope to the people there.

Volunteers from St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Pacifica, CA. strip paint for a home being reconstructed in the Lower Ninth Ward

NEW ORLEANS – As the crisis in Japan unfolds and it becomes apparent that recovery will require long-term, international help, one San Francisco Bay Area church knows what it’s like to adopt a people far away and commit to helping rebuild after a disaster.

In 2005, Pacfica, CA., resident and St. Andrew Presbyterian Church member Lisa Angelot was so moved by television images of the destruction in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, she was there within 10 weeks to volunteer. She gutted out flood-damaged homes with a group from Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church.

She came back to her church family at St. Andrew filled with stories about the massive needs on the Gulf Coast after suffering through Katrina and Hurricane Rita. The 200-member Pacifica congregation was inspired to send a group to the region as volunteers with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

The church group made its first trip in the winter of 2007 to Houma, LA. A field trip to New Orleans that week got them thinking about returning in 2008 to help there. The church has sponsored a group every year to New Orleans since, working in conjunction with a Presbyterian organization called Project Homecoming.

I happened to be in New Orleans at the start of the church’s fourth work trip, and got to tag along as more than 20 Bay Area volunteers worked at a few different locations in the city.

During a break at a house in the Lower Ninth Ward where part of the group had been hard at work with saws, drills and paint scrapers, we heard birds singing in the trees, which prompted Angelot to remember that on her first trip to New Orleans, there were no birds.

“All you heard were helicopters,” she said. There was destruction everywhere, no residents, just volunteers gutting houses and National Guardsmen patrolling the neighborhoods.

Five and a half years later, she said it’s heartening to see how far the city has come, but sobering to realize how far the city still needs to go. Officials estimate that nearly 50,000 housing units out of 200,000 are blighted. It’s not unusual to see entire neighborhoods still wiped out, or blocks with only one house reoccupied.

The fact that there is so much left to do – some estimates say it will take another five to 10 years to repair the hurricane and flood damage – keeps the Pacfica church group coming back year after year.

Along the way the church members have fallen in love with the city and its people.

“Our people have just been captivated by individual stories…and the story of the city,” said Pastor Penny Newall. “It’s been more than just going down and working for a week. It’s been a connection and a passion that is much deeper for many of the people who have gone.”

Tomorrow: How members of the St. Andrew work team have brought others along with them to help in New Orleans.

St. Andrew member Berni Schuhmann holds up a mini-King Cake she bought at lunchtime, during a break from working on a house in New Orlean's Lower Ninth Ward. Schuhmann's daughter Gillian Parkhurst looks on.