Project Homecoming Commits to Long-term Rebuilding of New Orleans

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Editor’s Note: This week I’m sharing stories about people and organizations who have helped New Orleans rebuild since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Monday and Tuesday we looked at a California church that sends a group of volunteers every winter. Wednesday we saw a family from that church that spends their vacation on the annual trips. Today’s post is about the organization that the church group works through, Project Homecoming.

NEW ORLEANS – More than five years after Hurricane Katrina, a number of rebuilding organizations have shuttered operations and moved on, despite the fact that this city still has nearly 50,000 blighted homes and numerous near-empty neighborhoods.

For one organization, there’s still more work to do.

Project Homecoming has helped struggling homeowners rebuild more than 125 homes since its creation in 2007 as a ministry of the Presbytery of South Louisiana and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA). As efforts to rebuild New Orleans continue and needs shift, Project Homecoming is going through a sort of rebirth, as it transitions to its own 501c3 nonprofit by the end of this year.

Volunteers from a Presbyterian church in Pennsylvania strip paint on a Project Homecoming work site in the Lower Ninth Ward.

“There’s a lot of faith-based groups that have left New Orleans; Presbyterians are some of the ones that remain because of PDA’s planning for a long-term commitment,” said Executive Director Jean Marie Peacock. “We’re thankful for the financial support they provided and the partnership that initiated Project Homecoming’s commitment to the long-term recovery in New Orleans.”

The PDA is now transitioning out of the Gulf, after more than five years of helping to rebuild communities in states all along the coast. It closed the last of its volunteer villages recently, but it remains involved in rebuilding efforts through a $500,000 grant it awarded to Project Homecoming for 2011.

Knowing that PDA would wind down efforts one day, Project Homecoming took steps toward continuing in New Orleans. One of the steps: seeking and winning a $500,000 grant from the city and acquiring a contractor’s license to tackle major blight through building and selling new homes to low-income families.

“It’s really an extension of what we have been doing with hurricane recovery,” Peacock said. “We’ll still continue to work with individuals, but we’re now branching into recovery work of neighborhoods.”

At the time Project Homecoming came together as a partnership of South Louisiana churches, the focus was on helping low-income, elderly and disabled homeowners lacking enough funds to rebuild after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Many of its clients were previously taken advantage of by unscrupulous contractors, leaving them unable to finance further reconstruction.

Then and now, Project Homecoming case managers help clients navigate the rebuilding process, while construction and onsite managers marshal teams of volunteers to do construction on the homes at about a third of the cost of using contractors. Volunteers do everything minus plumbing, electrical, and heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems; the organization hires trusted licensed professionals for that work.

Most of the nearly 10,000 volunteers who have worked through Project Homecoming over the years have come from Presbyterian churches all over the country. Director of Public Relations and Marketing Vann Joines said 2010 was the organization’s biggest volunteer year ever; they experienced a 15 percent increase in volunteers over 2009.

Tomorrow: How Project Homecoming will help revitalize neighborhoods through building new homes for low-income families.

A Church at the Center of Tragedy Reaching Out to Help Neighbors

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Prayer shawls sent by another church after the September 9 San Bruno explosion rest on the communion table at Bethany Presbyterian Church. Prayer shawls are created by knitters who pray into the shawls as they knit. They are also prayed over by a group before giving the shawls to those needing comfort in times of stress.

When they heard the natural gas pipeline blast that rocked the Crestmoor Canyon neighborhood on September 9, the pastor and members of Bethany Presbyterian Church sprang into action, not knowing that soon they’d be at the forefront of caring for victims.

Since the explosion and resulting fires that killed seven people, injured dozens more and destroyed 37 homes, the church and its national denomination have become emotional and spiritual caregivers to the community. They plan on offering support to the community for more than a year, as residents try to rebuild their homes and lives.

For Bethany, the tragedy became very personal when it was discovered that three of the seven killed – three generations of one family – were long-time members of the church.

The small church, only a half-mile away from where the pipeline exploded, was packed on the first Sunday after the tragedy, less than three days later. The congregation surrounded Sue and Janine Bullis, the mother and daughter who were still waiting at that time for official confirmation of the fate of three family members. Missing – but now declared deceased – were Sue’s husband, Greg Bullis, 50, their son William, 17, and Greg’s mother, Lavonne, 85.

At worship one week later, congregation members continued to support Sue and Janine, offering hugs and warm remembrances of Greg, “Willy”, and Lavonne. Lavonne, described by one congregation member as “the grandma who never said ‘no,’” had been a member for more than 40 years. Greg and Sue met at Bethany.

“We’ve always been a really close church,” Janine Bullis said after the service. Sue Bullis was quick to add the word “family” to the description.

Church Family Members Hear the Explosion

Some in that extended “family” were at the church on Thursday, September 9, just after 6 p.m., when they heard the explosion.

“We didn’t know what it was; we thought maybe it was a plane,” Interim Pastor Don Smith said. The church sits perched on a hill overlooking San Francisco International Airport, less than 10 miles from the area.

From the direction of the noise, they knew there might be congregation members who were affected, and they begin calling those members. Smith could not reach the Bullis home, but he was able to reach Sue Bullis, who was at work as a nurse. After a lot of frantic calls and searching it became clear that Greg, William and Lavonne were missing.

A Call for Help

Smith and some members of the congregation began visiting local hospitals to see if the three could be found among the burn victims. In the meantime, officials from the Presbytery of San Francisco, a regional governing body for the church, contacted national headquarters of the PDA, asking for help.

“We actually arrived before some of the houses were cooled off enough to search,” said Rick Turner, of the PDA. Turner, from South Carolina, and fellow team member Suzanne Malloy, from Southern California, arrived Saturday morning. The two volunteers met with church members and let local authorities know they were prepared to help.

The PDA is a mostly volunteer organization of the Presbyterian Church (USA) funded by donations from churches and individuals. Teams respond to events from church fires all the way up to nationally declared disasters. The main goals of the organization are to complement, not duplicate, efforts already underway through governmental and volunteer agencies, according to Turner and Malloy. Another goal is provide support to a congregation and the surrounding community over a long period of time – sometimes a year or more.

“It looks like our main responsibility (in San Bruno) is going to be emotional and spiritual care,” Turner said. He and Malloy said they expect they and other PDA volunteers will be returning to San Bruno over the next year to extend help as the community rebuilds.

Emotional and Spiritual Support

While PDA can supply resources such as monies, supplies, and volunteers, teams can also be called on to be the emotional and spiritual support for communities. In San Bruno, other agencies handling immediate physical needs and have asked PDA to specifically focus on those less tangible, but necessary, needs.

For example, Turner and Malloy said that Red Cross officials asked them to help plan the memorial service for the Bullis family, not something they usually do after a disaster. But in this case, between 1,500 and 1,900 mourners are expected. Greg Bullis was a nurse and former Marine, William was a senior at Mills High School, and Lavonne was an active community member. The pastor of a larger nearby church, First Presbyterian of Burlingame, offered to host the September 24 memorial.

“The response of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has really been remarkable,” Smith said.

The overall community response has been remarkable, with numerous agencies, organizations and other church denominations coming together to help residents. Turner and Malloy said they could see that at a community meeting on their first day in San Bruno.

“It was amazing watching everybody working together,” Turner said.

To help, go to the Bethany Presbyterian website for more information.