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Rising from Ruin is an on-going MSNBC.com special report chronicling two coastal Mississippi towns, Bay St. Louis and Waveland, as they rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

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This project is evolving. Our daily dispatches coverage has been retired. Click here to see what happened in the area between mid October and January 1, 2006.

Background on the towns and this project is available under the about tab above.

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BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. — You can see the beach from First Presbyterian Church on Ulman Avenue. It's just about the only place in Waveland, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian and Pearlington that Sam Thompson's shock troops haven't invaded.

Thompson, 25, a wiry, crew-cut ultra-marathoner, sells running gear on the Web from his home in Dallas. But that's on hold indefinitely. He's now living at First Presbyterian in Bay St. Louis as head of a massive assistance project undertaken by its sister First Presbyterian Church in Vicksburg, nearly 250 miles to the north.

Thompson happened to be visiting Vicksburg, where he used to live, when Hurricane Katrina hit the coast, and he got the call to head south.

At any one time, Thompson oversees as many as a hundred volunteers from churches from literally across the country — Friday, it was 60, from Washington state to New Jersey. Saturday, it will be 100 as a fresh rotation of workers rolls in.

They're mostly Presbyterians, but Thompson's crews span the spectrum of denominations. They all live in First Presbyterian, sleeping on cots, bunk beds and air mattresses. The church had nearly all of its members leave town, and since the building itself was in relatively good shape, its pastor, Ted Hanawalt, decided to put it to good use.

"It's fitting to make this a work camp to serve the community," Thompson says.

The teams spread out each day and go to work on severely damaged homes that might have a chance of being salvaged if they can get to them before the demolition crews. They essentially do triage — picking the most dangerous homes, then coming in with saws, crowbars and bleach to tear out moldy walls, rip up uselessly waterlogged flooring and generally gut the places. Where they can, they then do basic rebuilding, like hanging Sheetrock and making basic structural repairs. They make the homes viable for the major work that awaits contractors.

Thompson, his arms coated with sawdust from a tree he was cutting, meets us in the kitchen at First Presbyterian, where a wall hanging bears what must be the operation's battle plan. It's the Serenity Prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

"My basic premise is everybody down here needs help," Thompson says.

But some cases are more urgent than others, and tough decisions must be made. Sometimes, he has to accept that a home is too far gone. Often, Thompson says, he has to pull back on the reins.

"The tendency when people come down and see all this is to grab a Bobcat" — one of those big skid-steer loaders or forklifts — "and begin ripping stuff down," he says. But you have to start smaller. It's "one nail at a time."

One down, dozens to go

Friday was an exciting day for the project. While they were working on a lot of homes where residents have stayed put despite the conditions, one crew was putting the finishing touches on a house at 506 Genin St., where, for one of the first times, they were going to make it possible for a family to move back into what had been an uninhabitable remnant of a home.

As they near the finish, Joe Davignon, a burly, bearded engineer from the Liberty Corner Presbyterian Church in Liberty Corner, N.J., surveys the place and declares, "This is a home."

The house reeks of fresh paint, and while "some people don't like the smell of paint, when you compare it to mold, it smells fairly nice," says Pete Enderlin, who came from the same church.

Over the course of the past month, Liberty Corner has sent 44 people to First Presbyterian. Davignon, like many of them, had never been to the Deep South, and he was itching to finish up and make it out to Sicily's Italian Buffet for the first time, breaking a steady diet of donated food prepared at the church kitchen.

Davignon rejects the idea that he's doing anything special. "No. No," he repeats. "It's neighbors helping neighbors."

Back to basics

We then head over to Sycamore Street. It's in a mostly black and poverty-stricken neighborhood, and Thompson's crew members are just about the only white faces you see here.

At 659 Sycamore, near the dead-end end of the street, they were ripping out and disinfecting the mold-infested interior of a small pink house where Rina Gyins’ elderly parents live. Gyins, 49, heard about the church project from a friend of her brother, and they've been a godsend. They fixed up her house previously.

Most of these folks on this crew come from University Presbyterian in Seattle, which has committed to keep people down here as long as they're needed. One of them, Michael Spilde, who's in the financial factoring industry, isn't a member, but he came with them anyway. The water reached 2-1/2 feet high in the home, he says.

Little of the interior could be saved. Except for one bedroom they hadn't gotten to yet, the house is an empty shell. They've ripped out nearly everything, and now they are spraying it down with bleach to kill the rampant mold. In this house, the work is "one staple at a time," says Deanna Fraker, who, at 63, is the most senior volunteer in town this week. But, she notes, she's a spring chicken compared with some who'd come earlier. One of them was 82.

'There were children living in these houses'

There's still a lot to be done here as we head back to Genin Street to meet Tony and Mabel Monti. They're retired — Tony was a printer, and Mabel was a teaching assistant at an elementary school. She pitched in as a substitute teacher at the tent school before classes reopened in the school buildings this week.

They've been here at 500 Genin since 1964, and theirs is a common refrain. "We built this house," Mabel Monti says. "It went through Camille (in 1969) without a drop of water." This time, however, the water got in and rose 18 inches. If it had gotten much higher, she says, their last resort would have been to climb up on the washing machine and the dryer in the utility room.

The Montis at first tried to fix things up on their own, but that was far too big a job. Thompson notes that even Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer, was stopped in its tracks here, and "if they can't do it, how can Tony and Mabel do it by themselves?"

So now they have the church workers buzzing around. Never before have so many people with Northern accents been under its roof at one time, and "they've been wonderful help to us," Mabel Monti says. "They've been a lifesaver."

There are Southerners on this crew, too. One of them is Brendan Benshoof. He's 15 years old, one of only two minors with the project this week, and he's taking a week off from his freshman studies at South Gwinnett High School in Snellville, Ga., where he attends Westminster Presbyterian Church.

Why is he here, especially since he will have to get up at 4:30 in the morning for many days to make up the lost class time back home?

"There were children living in these houses!" he says. "I watched the news (in class), and we'd see New Orleans and we'd go, 'How terrible.' But you never really realize it till you see it for yourself."

A marathon effort

Thompson has put his life on hold until at least December. That's his basic agreement, but he says he'll stay here as long as he's able to do some good. So he doesn't really know how long he will have to juggle as many as 20 projects simultaneously, while keeping the peace among dozens of strangers who are trying to live harmoniously together in the tight confines of the First Presbyterian building.

This is a bigger deal than you might think. He might have, all at the same time, Southerners and Yankees, East Coasters and West Coasters, teens and senior citizens crammed together. And they can get cranky. "Most of them aren't used to physical labor, so 8 to 5 is a long day," Thompson says. "There are some problems, but I think that's human nature with lots of adults in a small space."

Once he concludes he's done everything he can here and has to give way to the heavy machinery of the contractors, he plans to contribute in another way. Before he came to Bay St. Louis, Thompson was running in training almost all day. Sometime next year, he hopes to organize a fund-raiser for Katrina relief in which he'll be sponsored for each mile of the ultimate ultramarathon: 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days.

"My training has not been up to snuff," he says, but still he's confident he can pull it off. He once ran the entire 2,160 miles of the Appalachian Trail, averaging 37 miles a day. A marathon is only 26 miles. He says it's nothing special for him to run a long, long way for the people of the Gulf Coast. After all, he says, "They're going to need help for a long, long time."

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62 COMMENTS

I for one can say that the Church groups who have blessed the Bay/Waveland area have truly done just that............blessed the area. Methodist, Presbytrian, Baptist, Non-denominational etc. these folks have rolled their shirt sleeves up, dug in and dug out multitudes of debris, dirt and waste! They have fed, clothed, given moral support and kind words. They have slept on the ground, on cots, in homes or what is left of them, and just been there for whatever needed. One group put my uncle's roof on, another cleared property at my brother's home, another group pulled sheetrock out of my brother's home, another group have helped friends of mine. The wonderful thing about these folks is just that - that they ARE WONDERFUL!!!!!! Random acts of kindness doesn't apply here............these are not random. They are very focussed and deliberate and for that I can only say "thank you" to those who have jumped in to be there for their fellow man. You guys are the greatest!!!!

I know it takes money to buy all the supplies. How can I donate? Keep up the great work. This is just another shinning example of brotherhood. God bless all of you.

What a grand project undertaken by Presbyterians and others! If I wasn't beginning a new job and building a new business I'd be volunteering my time down there with them. It's great to see assistance work across religious barriers that have inflicted violence and war in centuries past.

Great story! Funny...you don't hear about any athiest organizations down there helping. Go figger!

Thompson is a great guy doing greater things. My older brother roomed and attended college with him at Rhodes in Memphis and I had the pleasure of spending time with Sam on several trips to visit. Being from a town devistated by hurricane Ivan, I can fully appreciate everyone's help down there. I am glad you guys put this story out, Thompson and every single volunteer should be recognized.

Sam & Co. -

Rock on! We're all so proud of you and all you've been able to do for the folks on the cost. Having lived in southern Alabama most of my life, I know how much it means to see people from all over come to help clean up after a big storm. Our prayers are with you and all of those you're there to help.

It is great to see people pull together in times of disaster. Meeting needs of people you don't know or know. I know there's a great spirit of unity and sacrifice among those providing assistance in the Katrina struck areas. I pray more would catch the joys of helping others and not wait until disaster strikes again. It would be to the benefit of our children and thier children to teach this principle
that has been lost by those with personal adgendas and selfish ambitions. It is good to know that there is hope in giving and doing what Christ clearly taught to all who would heed his words. In spite of all the madness we see and hear about every day that goes on in the world there's nothing like knowing hope will never die as long as someone is willing to give it selflessly.
"How will they know unless someone tells them." Jesus Christ

It is so very good to see kind and loving acts of faithful men, women, and children working together toward the common goal of helping others in need...no matter the gender, race or religion of those we truly wish to help.

Let us continue to be a Part of the Solutions to these area in need...and always share our love, respect, and positive efforts with the rest of the nation and around the world...

SRene2005
www.ParentsWhoCare.us

Now is how you get results in a crisis!! -- by showing up at the sites and putting your hands on the work to be done. It's wonderful that we all donate monies to the Red Cross, Salvation Army, etc., but we know they divert a lot for other projects and their overhead. Here's people stepping up directly and right there "to get the jobs done". God Bless them and we are praying for them constantly and sending our donations to keep them going. We are not able to join them there, but we'll help as much as we can from here at our First Presbyterian in Kerrville, TX.

I had the opportunity to travel to Covington, LA as a volunteer to assist with the clean-up effort in Slidell and New Orleans, LA. I worked out of Trinity Church in Covington, LA and I have such admiration for the phenominal effort going out of that church. I was part of a crew that came from Beaver, PA. Crews from all over the country...all different faiths..{ I am Catholic}.. were coordinated to go out to different areas for different tasks. What I will remember is the determination of the people to focus on rebuilding their lives. I was so touched by the fact that we were there to help them clean up and they were so generous to us, offering to share what little thay had while we worked. I felt a great sense of accomplishment after completing each day's task. I consider it an honor and a priveledge to have been some help at least in a small way.

That's awesome. This isn't about going to church, doing church, this is Being the church. Loving God, loving people. That's what it's all about.

I have said it before but thanks again to all of the church groups, volunteer groups, etc. including Salvation Army (only national group) for the aid that FEMA and Red Cross failed to provide despite their billions of dollars.

Thank You MSNBC - for sharing another great example of people helping people with a common goal to show love for one another, and un-selfish desire to help those less fortuneate than ourselves...

SRene
www.ParentsWhoCare.us

The people who have helped in the wake of Katrina are not the story here although wonderful work has been done. The real story is Christianity. I was there as part of a rebuilding team about a month ago, and what I saw everywhere I looked was the unending love of Christ for His people. And the locals saw it, too.

As Ms Prescott said, it is being a real church. They are able to pull all of God's people, with all of God's talents, and surrond and almost cure the wounded earth, community, and people. It is very good news, talking about how God can assist everyone!

Thank you for sharing this story,MSNBC. God bless all the volunteers that keep plugging away. I know it must be overwhelming at times, but you show true heart. By God's unlimited strength, you prove to be there for the long haul. You are all in my prayers.

I am blessed and God has called me to help, I am listening. I am coming to help with a group of high schoolers from my church in December. We live in Templeton, CA (pop of approx 6000 as well) and we look forward to being of service to Waveland. I know I am only one person, with one suitcase but I have a willing heart, an ok back and God to give me strength. If I can help in a small way by bringing a small item with me please let me know before Dec 15. Our group will arrive to help for the week of Dec 16-23. tess hotta

My Friends, Truly this is what Faith in Action means. Your efforts have attracted national attention, truly one man can make a diference. Now as we prepare to celebrate the birth of one such Man, may you enjoy a Blessed and Merry Christmas and carry on in His Name.
You are a marvelous inspiration!

Sam (and all who are doing similar work),
...may the Lord richly bless you and your efforts. Your kindness will be richly repaid in ways that you cannot fully know.

It's truly refreshing to see the mainstream media bringing an encouraging story to the American Public after so many devastating reports about the Hurricanes. I also appreciate the how the Church, Christians in general, have come togethere to help. It serves to show that people still have a heart in a world filled with violence, hate, and fear.

I just returned (Saturday Nov 12) from a week of similiar work, in Gulfport MS. While I am sure that monetary donations are needed, manpower is needed more. Since most do not have flood insurance, only damage above the floodline will be covered. Most flooding was above 4 ft - how many of your belongings are stored above 4 ft? I could barely pick up a hammer before arriving in Gulfport, and now can rip out drywall and flooring with the best. Get together with your church, and figure out how to send a crew down to help.

In my heart I knew these kinds of efforts were going on. Thanks for finally telling us about one such effort. However, I wish the media (MSNBC and TV news media as well) would tell us more good news like this. I have a feeling that churches all over the gulf coast are doing similar things, and we just are hearing about it. Keep on telling us good news.

I was part of Sam's group in Bay Saint Louis last week with my two teenage daughters. It is hard to find words to describe the physical conditions - there is not a single home that was not damaged by Katrina. There is no way this community can recover by themselves, there is just too much to be done. The three of us put in 6 days of hard work. It is only a drop in the bucket, but every drop counts. What is most amazing is the spirit of the residents who have decided to stay and rebuild. They are optimistic, determined, and many consider themselves lucky for many different reasons. Those of us caught up in the busy-ness of life can learn a lot from these people. Thank you MSNBC for sharing this story.

PEOPLE CARE FROM ALL OVER, I AM ORIGANNLY FROM ALEXANDRIA,LA, I RECENTLY LIVE IN MISOULA,MT , MY CHURCH GROUP FROM CRISTIAN LIFE CENTER SENT A TEAM TO NEW ORELEANS & OCEAN SPRINGS,MISS ,THEY HELPED WITH CLEAN UP EFFORTS IN NEW ORLEANS & ALSO BROUGHT 1,000 BAGS OF TOYS,CANDY & OTHER KID THINGS THAT WERE NEEDED.WHAT A TRUE JOY TO SEE THE EXPRESSIONS ON THOSE KIDS FACE WHEN THEY RECEIEVED THOSE BAGS OF GOODIES,WE ALSO MINISTERD TO THOSE IN NEED.THE CHURCH IS TRUELY BLESSED TO HAVE THE OPPERTUNITY TO BE THERE.

My husband and I were with a small group from Calvary Baptist Church in Mt. Airy North Carolina was in Gulfport the middle of Oct. We were so blessed to be able just to help in such a small way. We were only there 5 days. All the people we met were so thankful and optimistic that things were going to be fine.

Our thanks goes out to all the Christians from all denomations coming together for such a wonderful cause. I truly beleive these people are going to need our help for a very long time. we have groups going just about every 3 weeks. We plan to go back in January. May God Bless you all and MSNBC for the great job you have done keeping the word out there.

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