Family Spends Annual Vacations in New Orleans – Volunteering

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Editor’s Note: This week I’m featuring stories about people and organizations that are still working to rebuild New Orleans more than five years after Hurricane Katrina. See the entries from Monday and Tuesday, which detailed how a congregation from St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Pacifica, CA., has made a commitment to help rebuild New Orleans through annual work trips. Today is the story of one family from that church.

NEW ORLEANS – Berni Schuhmann’s family comes to this city every single winter, but they aren’t sightseeing or living it up at Mardi Gras. This family rolls up their sleeves to work.

Schuhmann, her two grown children, Aron and Gillian, her sister Taryn, and her sister’s boyfriend, Dave Bier, make the annual trek to New Orleans to help rebuild homes devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

From left to right: Berni Schuhmann, her sister Taryn Tewksbury, Taryn's boyfriend, Dave Bier, Berni's son Aron, and daughter Gillian Parkhurst. The family is standing in front of the home in New Orleans they worked on as volunteers in February, 2011.

The tradition started four years ago in 2007 when Schuhmann traveled with her church, St. Andrew Presbyterian of Pacifica, CA., to Louisiana for a mission trip with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

The trip left a deep impression on Schuhmann and her fellow church members, who all agreed they needed to return the following year. They also agreed they needed to invite others to come help. Schuhmann asked her family.

Her sister, Taryn Tewksbury of Tuscon, AZ., said Schuhmann was clearly passionate in her desire to return the next year to help rebuild in New Orleans.

“You don’t say no to her,” Tewksbury joked. “She’s little but she runs everything.”

Schuhmann was successful in convincing Tewksbury, son Aron, and daughter Gillian Parkhurst to come the following year. Both Schuhmann and Parkhurst are teachers in the San Francisco Bay Area; they give up winter recess for the work trips. The family has come every winter since, except Aron who missed last year due to business.

Schuhmann’s husband, Scott, has not been on the trips due to his work schedule in college athletics, she said. He cheers the rest of the family on: one Christmas he gave his wife and kids their own sets of coveralls to wear on the work trips. They were thrilled to receive them.

Aron Schuhmann said for him the trips are a way to connect with his family, since he lives in Southern California working in online advertising. It’s his only vacation of the year.

“It’s a good opportunity to spend a lot of time together,” he said.

Last month marked the family’s fourth trip to New Orleans together. They celebrated Aron’s 27th birthday during the week working on a home in the Lower Ninth Ward being rebuilt by the organization, Project Homecoming.

Tewskbury said she was a little scared before her first trip to New Orleans, because she didn’t know what to expect.

“Immediately when we got here the first year we were shocked at how much needed to be done,” she said. The rebuilding work and getting to know the homeowner of the house they were working on proved to be meaningful experience, however. And since that first trip she said the family and their fellow volunteers from St. Andrew, “totally fell in love with New Orleans.”

Tewksbury found another love in New Orleans on one of the work trips: her boyfriend Dave Bier. He had come from Pacifica with the church; Tewksbury came from Tuscon. They fell in love and managed a long-distance relationship, until Bier moved to Arizona.

Tomorrow: Project Homecoming commits to long-term recovery of New Orleans.

 

California Church Opens Arms to New Orleans – and New Friends

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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.


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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.