By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special Contributor | Published September 8, 2005
An e-mail and grace from God were all it took to send 11 young adults from the Life Teen community, archdiocesan Catholic high schools, and other archdiocesan ministries, and a priest to the afflicted area of Houma, La., Labor Day weekend with three mini-buses packed with supplies and a pick-up truck with enough extra gas to make the round trip.
Greg Iwinski, the new assistant youth minister at St. Ann Church, Marietta, e-mailed former Atlanta Life Teen minister Paul George, now working for Bishop Sam Jacobs in the Houma-Thibodeaux Diocese, southwest of New Orleans, Friday morning to see if he needed help after Katrina. When George said yes, Iwinski felt the nudge of God to do something. He contacted Lisa Epperson, a Life Teen regional leader in Marietta, about trying to make the difficult and uncertain trip as a personal response to their friend. She agreed. The next thing they knew, they had a group, a caravan of vehicles, mounds of donations and full financial support.
“Last night in personal prayer, God pushed me to the point where I knew I needed to at least ask (George) and see where God took me,” Iwinski said the evening of Sept. 2. “And now 24 hours later I’m just amazed at what He has done … It exploded into this unbelievable explosion of love and grace.”
Through e-mails and word of mouth, $6,000 had been raised by Friday night, said Father Kevin Peek, chaplain at Blessed Trinity High School in Roswell, who made the trip. Three minibuses were loaded to capacity with medical supplies, food, water, diapers, formula, children’s toys and books, toiletries, bedding, and even portable cooking equipment.
Carla Heinsch, youth minister at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Smyrna, who also decided to make the trip, said donations came from St. Ann’s parishioners, the Mustard Seed group, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and the young adult community, among others, as e-mails spread the word of the need. George had told them about 10,000 people from New Orleans had been evacuated to Houma and about 2,000 were being sheltered at the Civic Center across from the Adore ministry office in Houma.
“It’s something I could do. I could give my time and my resources,” Heinsch said of the trip. “I am a youth minister. I can’t give money, but I can give this.”
The group also included Shealyn Beatley, Ike Ndolo, Mike Judge, Jocelyn Givens, Kevin and Jennifer Kiefer, Mike Revak and Michael Cancienne.
The caravan left early Saturday morning, Sept. 3, skirting around Baton Rouge to avoid government-imposed curfews in certain areas, and arrived in Houma about 1 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 4.
“We arrived early Sunday morning and on Monday morning they were eating our breakfast,” Father Peek said. “The people in the convention center, they’re good and safe. They have food and shelter, and a lot of people really helping out. But a lot of them are very weary of sleeping on a cot and living in the aisles.”
The volunteers at the shelters have brought hope as they worked to lift the spirits of the evacuees and pray with them, he added.
Once the supplies were unloaded, relief workers approached the Atlanta group about making trips to Dallas and Houston shelters to reunite evacuees with their family members.
To relieve one of the bus drivers, Father Peek drove a bus on the 12-hour roundtrip to Houston.
“I was looking for a radio station and the only station was a talk show with people telling their stories … I looked in the rearview mirror and all the faces were blank, just staring out the window. I said, ‘y’all don’t want to hear this, do you?’ They said, ‘no, we’re so done, we’re so tired of hearing about it.’ So I turned it off.”
When lunch on the road was to be MREs, Army meals in a bag that taste “awful,” Father Peek stopped at Burger King and bought lunch for all on board.
“The coolest part was seeing the reunions,” said Father Peek, who recounted the stories of those still trying to piece together their families. The group helped to reunite about 70 families during their trip.
Father Peek spoke about one passenger going to Houston. After the storm surge from Katrina, the 17-year-old boy, who didn’t know how to swim, had waded in chest-high water pulling his mother and sister in an inflatable swimming pool. As Coast Guard officials in boats told people to evacuate, the three headed to the closest bridge where women and children were taken first. The teenager knew his mother and sister were OK, but he was left on the bridge as they were whisked away in a helicopter. He eventually made it to the Houma shelter while his mother and sister, he later found out, had been taken to a Houston shelter.
While Father Peek and others were taking people to other locations, the rest of the contingent from the Atlanta archdiocese were feeding people at the shelter, organizing supplies and praying with those who had been evacuated.
Judge, a parishioner at St. Ann Church, said the group prepared the shelter for 120 more people. He said that celebrating Mass together at the shelter was a high point of the trip for him.
Once back from Houston, Father Peek and others in the caravan loaded up evacuees who would be settled temporarily in the Atlanta area. The priest recounted stories of these family members reconnecting with their loved ones as the buses arrived at the Atlanta Airport Hilton, the designated pick-up location. One young man had stayed in Louisiana to tend to the family home during the storm while other family members came to Atlanta.
“That was the last time they saw him,” Father Peek recalled. “They lost everything.”
As the bus pulled into the hotel parking lot, Father Peek noticed an SUV with Louisiana tags and then heard someone calling out.
“I brought him to them and they just about tackled him,” Father Peek said. “They were so grateful he was alive.”
The journey brought the North Georgia contingent face to face with the outreach efforts of many.
“Every town we saw signs that said, ‘shelter this exit.’ There was a mile of motor coaches trying to reconnect families … To me, that’s what is needed.”
Father Peek spoke of one Atlanta family who, with the help of neighbors, is housing 30 family members.
“That’s what’s needed—reaching out in your own neighborhood.”
He alluded to news accounts of disorganization among relief efforts but said overall that he was impressed by what he witnessed.
“People were so organized. Members of the Houma police department were loading buses and vans. It was like (being) at the airport. They would go through their bags for weapons, drugs, since these were total strangers being put in your vehicle. One bus was bringing back 40 or more police officers and their families who have nothing.”
Even though they replaced four tires before the trip, the caravan experienced one flat tire along the way. But any frustration over that or having to wait over two hours for gas at one point did not take the energy out of Father Peek’s tired, hoarse voice.
“The people down there, they’re stepping up to the plate. Jesus didn’t say, ‘Let the government do it…’ Jesus said, ‘Love your neighbor.’ People are rising up out of the woodwork. The relief efforts are already going on. People are getting the job done.”