How to Help Superstorm Sandy Victims; Money and Blood Donations Needed Now

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As the Northeast continues to feel the severe impacts of Superstorm Sandy, the rest of the country is already jumping in to help. Not only is money needed to help fund relief efforts already underway, the American Red Cross is also putting out a national call for blood donations to make up for nearly 300 cancelled drives in 11 affected states. Use the links below to donate, or find out more information.

To donate to relief efforts:

  • American Red Cross – Visit www.redcross.org to make a direct donation, or text the word “Redcross” to 90999 to donate $10. Craigslist founder Craig Newmark is offering a matching opportunity. He will match any donations to the Red Cross through his Crowdrise fundraising page, up to $25,000. Crowdrise takes 4.95 percent of donations to help fund its operating costs; 100 percent of the donation is tax deductible.
  • Salvation Army – The organization is accepting donations to fund its disaster relief efforts. Volunteers are feeding thousands and operating shelters throughout the region. Visit www.salvationarmyusa.org to donate.
  • Feeding America – The group is distributing thousands of pounds of food and fresh water through a network of food banks throughout the Northeast. Find out more at feedingamerica.org.
  • UPDATE – Presbyterian Disaster Assistance – Since this story was first posted, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance set up a way to donate $10 via texting: text “PDA” to 20222. Or donate online at the PDA website.

American Red Cross blood drives in the San Francisco Bay Area over the next week: [Read more…]

Rebuilding New Orleans: From Homes to Entire Neighborhoods

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Editor’s Note: All week long I’ve posted stories about people and organizations that are helping to rebuild New Orleans. Posts on Monday and Tuesday looked at a California church that sends a work group to the city every winter. Wednesday was about a family that takes the trips every year. Yesterday I started a story about Project Homecoming. Today is part two of the story.

NEW ORLEANS –  Project Homecoming was born in 2007 after it became apparent that many homeowners whose homes were destroyed after Hurricane Katrian were struggling to rebuild. Elderly, disabled and the poor were especially at a disadvantage. Many had received monies to rebuild from insurance or the government, only to have those funds stolen by unscrupulous contractors.

A volunteer from California works on a the North Rampart house being rebuilt by Project Homecoming.

A number of churches in the Presbytery of South Louisiana, along with the national Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, partnered together to create Project Homecoming to help those homeowners who were disadvantaged. Since that time the group has utilized nearly 10,000 volunteers from around the country to rebuild more than 125 homes.

Now five and a half years since Katrina, the organization is re-gauging its focus, to include not only helping individual homeowners, but also entire neighborhoods.

In the fall of last year, the organization started construction on its first house without a homeowner. The more than 120-year-old house on North Rampart Street in the Lower Ninth Ward was donated by an overwhelmed owner who had inherited the property – along with blight liens, taxes, and looming construction costs.

“It was in worse than zero shape,” said Construction Manager Noelle Marinello. Twelve feet of water invaded the house when the levees broke after Katrina; a large hole in the roof from wind damage had let in five years of rain, wind, and pests.

The home on North Rampart Street that Project Homecoming is rebuilding with the help of volunteers.

Teams of volunteers have rotated in every week to clear out the once overgrown lot and completely rebuild the classic New Orleans shotgun house structure.

Public Relations and Marketing Director Vann Joines said the home will be priced to make it accessible for a low-income family, without negatively affecting home prices in the surrounding neighborhood. Low-income is defined as making 80 percent or less of the area’s median income. One report puts the city’s median income for a family of four at $66,000 a year.

The North Rampart Street house is in essence a test case for Project Homecoming, as it prepares to tackle rebuilding efforts through a city grant of $500,000 the group was awarded. The organization will be using the money to purchase 13 lots from the state, which acquired the properties in a buy-out program after the disaster. Officials plan to build 11 new homes and rehabilitate two existing homes over the next two years.

The 3-bedroom, 2-bath 1,200-square-foot homes will be energy efficient using green building materials, Joines said. The houses will be raised high enough to escape future flooding, and be able to withstand hurricane-force winds. And Project Homecoming will work with neighborhood associations to ensure that each home fits the architectural character of the community.

Each home is expected to cost between $190,000 and $200,000 to build, but will be sold for approximately $150,000. Project Homecoming officials, working in partnership with other nonprofits, will help low-income homebuyers secure mortgages of between $85,000 and $90,000, as well as “soft second” grants to cover the remaining cost.

Qualified homebuyers will also be counseled and trained in how to save money and manage finances so they can meet future mortgage, tax and maintenance responsibilities.

Executive Director Jean Marie Peacock said other “holistic” efforts to help neighborhoods Project Homecoming is undertaking include partnering with neighborhood associations and other agencies to build community gardens, clear lots, and identify blighted properties for future rehabilitation. They are working with one school to teach students about urban farming.

As volunteers preparing for a new week of work were told recently by Operations Director Kevin Krejci: “We are here for the long term to make sure that community-wide recovery happens.”

For more information about Project Homecoming and how to help, go to http://projecthomecoming.net. Or call the toll free number: (877) 942-0444.

Next: One man’s story of survival.

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.

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

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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.


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.