By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published August 24, 2006
When a tornado roared through his Dunwoody neighborhood in 1998, Dan Wilkens lost 24 trees in his yard.
The support he received from friends and strangers in his efforts to put his home back together touched him and had a lasting effect on him. So when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast region last August, there was only one thing for Wilkens to do.
In the days following Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, Wilkens, 65, who is semi-retired, met with fellow All Saints Church parishioners to determine what they could do to help. Wilkens immediately volunteered to go to Mississippi.
“At the meeting, I said, ‘if you need a boots-on-the-ground guy, I have the time. I’ll go,’” he recalled.
With a background in construction work, Wilkens knew he could be of help. He got in touch with Bragg Williams, a parishioner at Our Lady of the Gulf Church in Bay St. Louis, Miss., who was living in Atlanta after the storm. Williams told him that the parish, which sits overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, had been severely damaged by the storm surge from Hurricane Katrina.
Wilkens headed west with money collected from All Saints parishioners. For the first couple of days, he slept in his car. Later he slept on the beach or bunked with a fellow volunteer in a trailer provided by FEMA.
“I got down there Sept. 21. It was like a war zone. There was no electricity, no telephones and no water. People were still in shock. You could see it on their faces,” Wilkens said.
Wilkens stayed and helped at the parish for two months, not returning to Atlanta until Nov. 22. He coordinated groups of volunteers who passed through the area and within a month Our Lady of the Gulf’s community center was functioning.
It was important to help the parish get back on its feet, Wilkens said, to give people hope for rebuilding their own homes. He learned a lot about humility, he added, during his time in Mississippi.
“We’re given a lot of things in life that we don’t earn,” he said. “You’re never prepared to realize that you can be humbled and taken to your knees in a microsecond.”
On a Saturday in late July, the sound of hammers and saws echoes throughout OLG’s property. OLG pastor Father Michael Tracey prepares to celebrate a nuptial Mass in the renovated church.
Nearby at Our Lady Academy, the all-girls school on the property of OLG, volunteers from the Church of St. Ann in Marietta are hard at work helping to prepare the damaged building for the upcoming school year.
St. Ann’s volunteer coordinator, Bob Lambie, has been driving down to Bay St. Louis once a month since October 2005. He originally came to help a fellow parishioner’s mother whose home was devastated by Katrina, but met up with Dan Wilkens at a Sunday Mass and committed himself to serving OLG.
St. Ann’s has been sending volunteers down to assist Lambie for the past year, he said.
“Every parishioner who comes down here has come back feeling that they have gotten more than they’ve given,” Lambie said.
Wilkens passed his volunteer coordinator torch to Dan Quinn, a young man from Pittsburgh. Quinn came down to help after Katrina with the intention of staying 10 days. Ten months later he was still in Bay St. Louis, finally preparing to go home. He spent the last 10 months coordinating volunteers to the area and said volunteers have had life-changing experiences.
“People walk away with a different sense of involvement in their church,” he said. “A lot of people call me wanting to talk about their faith and how they’ve been inspired by the faith of the people here.”
St. Ann’s parishioners have raised over $75,000 to help rebuild the parish and surrounding areas, including St. Peter the Apostle School in Pascagoula, where funds go toward tuition support for students, and St. Theresa Church in Sulphur, La., a fellow LaSalette parish that was heavily damaged by Hurricane Rita. The ministry is under the formal umbrella title of St. Ann’s Gulf Coast Outreach.
“We advertise with brochures and on the weekly Mass song sheets and in the bulletin,” Lambie said, adding that people at the Marietta parish have responded tremendously.
“We are very focused when we come here on seeing how we can help, what they need us to do, and not just sticking to our own agenda,” Lambie said. “Personally for me, it’s a major way of living my faith.”
Wilkens, too, continues to serve in Mississippi, and has been back and forth several times since his initial visit.
“If I didn’t have my wife and children, I would move down there,” he said. “These people need all the volunteers they can get for the next 10 years.”