There is no shortage of need for reconstruction assistance six years after Hurricane Katrina, said the leader of the Epworth Project, a nonprofit group working to make a difference in the lives of people affected by natural disasters and personal challenges.
“We are still working on Hurricane Katrina rebuilding projects. We have also recognized the need to help people affected by other natural disasters like tornadoes, fires or because they have health issues that make it difficult to manage the project themselves,” said Executive Director Dale Kimball of Slidell.
The Epworth Project, a self-supporting nonprofit community group, was born last year when the Louisiana Methodist Conference moved its disaster recovery support from the area to address needs in other parts of the country. The Slidell program is the faith-based arm of Northshore Disaster Recovery, Inc.
In 2011, volunteers from the Epworth Project helped in the aftermath of the tornado touchdown in the Bush area, along with hurricane-related rebuilds.
“About 70 percent of our projects last year were still Katrina-related. The other 30 percent involved tornado damage here and in Alabama, as well as social need-based projects,” Kimball said.
The management team at the organization receives daily requests for help. The criteria for the acceptance is broad, with each case reviewed individually.
“We look at the vulnerability of the client, and that is our key guide. Are they elderly or have health issues that make it difficult to understand, afford or manage a reconstruction project? Or maybe there are small children involved, and there is a special need. We consider all these things before accepting a project,” he said.
The center’s team has a good relationship with the Slidell Police Department and fire districts and the St. Tammany Sheriff’s Office. They call the Epworth Project’s staff when they see a concern that needs to be address. When a request for help is received, a four-person team is involved in the evaluation of all projects, Kimball said.
“I, or our project manager, Ken Ward, will meet with the homeowner and decide on the feasibility of the request. If we feel we can do the work, then our case manager Susan Arnold meets with the client to get more information on that person’s situation. Then the three of us, along with our financial manager, Cynthia White, and our volunteer coordinator, Danielle Fleming, sit down and see whether we have all the resources, financial and manpower, to get the job done,” said Kimball.
At that table, Kimball said at least one person plays the devil’s advocate to make sure the job fits the scope of the program’s parameters. After they reach this point, he said, approximately 90 percent of requests received are accepted into the program.
“It comes down to the human issue. Is there a genuine need, and if so, can we do the work? If we can, we need to make it happen,” Kimball said.
The Epworth Project has approximately 50 projects in progress and another 75 or so currently on its waiting list. In 2011, volunteers helped reconstruct approximately 90 homes, with about 50 of them in greater New Orleans, and the remaining ones on the north shore and as far away as Alabama. This included work on homes also damaged by fire, tornadoes and termites.
“One duplex in New Orleans involving multiple families turned out to be a total rebuild,” said Kimball. “There wasn’t much left after Katrina and the termites. But it’s done.”
That’s where the more than 1,900 volunteers entered the picture last year. Volunteers paid for the privilege to come and work and sweat, Kimball said. The Epworth Project is a popular place for church groups wanting to do mission work, the executive director said.
“Over the last few years, we have built a one-stop shop for volunteers. They pay $275 per person. That covers their housing, food, building materials for the job sites and tools. All they need to do is get here and we put them to work,” he said.
Already this year, 914 volunteers have reserved their places in the Epworth Project’s bunk house on the Aldersgate United Methodist Church’s campus. Another 451 have expressed an interest, but have not confirmed.
The nonprofit’s next big rush will be in March when the church campus will be inundated with college students during what is now dubbed, “Alternative Spring Break.”
“Instead of heading to the beach and partying, these kids choose to be a part of recovery efforts all over the country. It’s phenomenal the amount of support we get through these groups and the work that they can do on their spring break,” said Kimball. More than 400 students will use the Epworth Project as their home base for volunteer work during that month.
“We are thankful for Aldersgate’s help during these big weeks. Our sleeping quarters hold 56 people. The rest of the students will be spread out all across the church campus for a few weeks,” he said.
Funding for rebuilding projects is always an issue. Donations are always welcome, as well as help with fundraising.
“Our waiting list shows there is a need. But we can’t go forward with a project unless there is the money to do it,” Kimball said. Sometimes even the volunteers that come from out of state help with the financing.
“As often happens, volunteer team members get very close to the homeowners at their job sites. A connection is made that can last for years. It is not unusual that the team will go home and raise funds for a job that needs to be finished back here and then send us the funds,” said Kimball. He also has had volunteers hand him checks as they are leaving to go home, many with the stipulation that the donation remain anonymous, especially to the donor’s volunteer teammates.
“They leave more than their sweat here. One person put a check in my hand as she left. I didn’t look at it until later. It was for several thousand dollars. That’s the kind of thing that finishes houses. Her money helped complete two house projects and build two wheelchair ramps for people who really needed them,” he said.
Kimball also has been on the road, sharing how the Epworth Project works and showing other communities how they can set up a similar program. Some communities have done well following the model, while others have not, Kimball said.
“We have shared the blueprints for our operation, and it can work anywhere with a little alteration for their particular situation. Many people want to reinvent the wheel when it’s not necessary. We learned a lot of things by trial and error. A town in Iowa that was devastated by flooding took our model and is doing great. We’ve met with people in other towns, and they have not shared our success because they have altered the basis of the plan too much. But we know it can work,” he said.
Local volunteer involvement also is extremely important to the center’s continued success.
“Someone doesn’t have to commit to a week’s time to volunteer to make a difference. We want local people to be involved. If they have a day or a half-day or even an hour, we’ll find something to do to match their skills, and they can make a difference in their own community,” he said.
For more information about the Epworth Project or to volunteer, call 985.781.7990.
Slidell-based Epworth Project volunteers still hammering away at devastation in the area