Volunteers build home for Katrina victims11/6/08

Nov. 6, 2008

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

Three years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, one of the most damaging storms in American history, Gulf Coast residents continue to pick up the pieces of their lives. And Williston aid volunteers have been more than willing to help.


    Courtesy photo
Volunteers from the Vermont Faith Community, which includes members of the Williston Federated Church, raise the first wall of the Vermont House in Mississippi on Oct. 27.

Members of the Williston Federated Church are currently taking part in a three-week home building project for the Pittman family in Three Rivers, Miss. Even though the town is located inland from the Gulf Coast, the strong winds, heavy rains and tornadoes of Katrina still packed a devastating punch to this quiet southern town.

“We’ve been having an absolute blast,” Tony Lamb, the trip’s organizer, told the Observer during a phone call from the work site. “The people of Mississippi are wonderful and couldn’t be more helpful.”

The church members are part of a group of more than 90 volunteers from 17 Vermont churches known as the Vermont Faith Community. The group is building the house. Volunteers have been flying down for weeklong shifts during the three-week construction project. This is the fourth trip in which volunteers from the church have flown to the Gulf Coast.

The Pittmans’ former home wasn’t completely destroyed in the hurricane, but it was damaged enough to be deemed uninhabitable, said Lamb.

For the past three years, Arthurene Pittman and the two grandchildren she cares for have lived in government housing and friends’ homes, but nothing permanent. And the elderly Pittman also had to deal with a medical condition that partially paralyzed her for a short time. Life has not been easy for them, Lamb said, but the Vermont workers are hoping to change some of that by week’s end.

The progress on the Vermont House, as the Pittmans’ home has been dubbed, can be followed on a daily basis by visiting thevermonthouse.blogspot.com. Pictures and Web logs are available on the site.

Lamb said he’s been busy helping to organize the work at the Vermont House, as well as coordinating the arrival and departure of volunteers from the nearby New Orleans airport. He joked he’s become known as the mission’s “cruise director.”

Lamb said the volunteers have been hard at work building the house frame, the deck and roofing.

“When they first put up that first wall, it was really emotional for everybody,” Lamb said. “You had a feeling it was really going to happen.”

Many volunteers are doing tasks they’ve never done before, he said. Volunteers have also been working on another home much like the Vermont House. Town Clerk Deb Beckett, who volunteered the first week with her daughter Ellie, worked on the other home, known as the Waxman House. The elder Beckett said she helped put up drywall and insulation at in the Waxman House, while her daughter and eight other teenagers worked on the Vermont House.

“We made a lot of progress and we were really happy to be on schedule,” Beckett said.

Sandy Loisel, who also took part in the Vermont House efforts with her daughter, Emily, is amazed at the need for charity work three years after the hurricane.

“Without the faith-based groups, there are a lot of people who would still be homeless,” Loisel said.

The volunteers have also become minor celebrities in their own rights in Mississippi. The local news station, WLOX, featured them in an evening broadcast and two local newspapers have been following their story.

By the end of the week, Lamb expects the roof to be completed and inspected. A few other details may remain as the Vermont volunteers head home, such as flooring and cabinet work, but other volunteer groups are scheduled to help next week if necessary.

Lamb said the weather has been on their side, even though the humidity has been a little much for volunteers more used to the cooler, drier Vermont climate of October and November.

Through it all, Pittman has made site visits every day and has helped volunteers in the building process, even if she has a low stamina, Lamb said.

And while the work is near completion, it’s by no means completed. The mission still needs donations to help the Pittmans get back on their feet. The family needs new appliances and furniture, and while some money may be left over to help purchase the items, there won’t enough, Lamb said.

“We’re building this woman a nice house, but all the grant money has dried up,” he said.

Donations for the project are still being accepted. To contribute, make checks out to Williston Federated Church, Katrina Fund, 44 North Williston Road, Williston, Vt. 05495.