WAVELAND, Miss. – Phil and Donna Fairchild wanted something other than cruises and bridge games for their golden years.
“When Phil retired three years ago, we thought there had to be a lot more to retirement than playing golf and living on the lake,” says Donna.
They found it here -- living in a 30-foot trailer, working 12 to 15 hours a day, six and seven days a week for an entire year as Hurricane Katrina volunteers.
The Fairchilds, who are finally about to take some time off after running a large Methodist relief camp, are superstars among the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who have flocked here to help rebuild the Gulf Coast and earn the undying gratitude of a community that was brought to its knees by the deadly storm of Aug. 29, 2005.
Believe what you want about how the government responded after Katrina, but take this on faith: Without the millions of volunteer hours logged by the Fairchilds and others over the past two years the hurricane zone would not have come nearly as far as it has. And faith was exactly what brought the lion’s share of these Samaritans here and keeps them coming -- motivated, organized and deployed by religious organizations.
“Faith-based organizations have just been unbelievable,” says Waveland Mayor Tommy Longo, who promises that the names of all volunteer groups and sister cities will be read aloud at Wednesday’s two-year Katrina anniversary observance in his city. “That in itself may take an hour, but I think it is almost as important now to read those as the names of the deceased because these people have done so much for us.”
All told, according to the federal government’s Corporation for National and Community Service, a little over 1 million civilian volunteers have donated their time and talents to Katrina relief efforts, a total of 14 million hours. In the last year alone, they have rebuilt or repaired nearly 10,000 homes, served meals to 1,800 people a month, built 59 playgrounds and started construction on more than 1,000 new homes.
Group has worked on 92 homes
In their time at Camp Gulfside, operated by the United Methodist Committee on Relief, the Fairchilds have focused on residential construction projects, overseeing the rehab of 82 homes and the construction of 10. The help is available for the asking to storm victims who are elderly, single parents, disabled or meet other criteria.
Phil, 64, retired after 30 years as a mechanical engineer at the Oak Ridge, Tenn., federal nuclear weapons plant, organized the camp’s job board and directed constructions crews. Donna, 60, who previously worked as a medical-imaging technician, handled the camp’s logistics.
The couple wound up here after testing the waters on a few previous Methodist trips specially designed to attract volunteers who could provide their own housing in the form of recreational vehicles. In February 2006, they worked on Katrina relief efforts in Dulac, La., passing through Hancock County on the way back to their home in Loudon, Tenn.
“We saw all the destruction and we just knew we had to come back,” says Donna. As if on cue, they saw an appeal three months later for a volunteer couple to manage the Waveland camp. They applied and were accepted in August 2006. “We were down here a week later,” their Tennessee residence locked up for a year in which they have only been home once.
Now, it’s time for a vacation, and the Fairchilds will return to Tennessee to recharge their batteries and visit their three children and two grandchildren. After that, they have no doubts they’ll return to the volunteer trail.
“God has done a work on me,” says Donna, blond, energetic and far younger-looking than her age. “This experience has caused me to look at material things differently, when I think how we have struggled to come up with money to pay for a foundation when I have a rug on my floor at home that would more than cover it.”
'This changes your outlook'
“I’m not a Bible thumper, but this changes your outlook,” says Phil, whose head of white hair, full white beard and twinkling eyes give him the appearance of a skinny Santa. “The only real way most of us know to be obedient to God is to give back to others.”
The departure of the Fairchilds raises the issue of the continuing need for relief and rebuilding help. All observers agree that there will be work for outside volunteers in the hurricane zone for a long time to come.
While the Corporation for National and Community Service says volunteer numbers actually increased from 550,000 in the first year after the storm to 600,000 in the second, Hancock County observers all are certain that numbers fell dramatically here.
“Far more volunteers came through the first year,” says Kathleen Johnson, who organizes volunteers at Katrina Relief in Waveland. “It’s definitely fallen off,” agrees Mayor Longo.
Chris Bowers, who coordinates Katrina efforts for the Methodist group, says their first-year volunteer total of 25,000 fell by about half in the second year, leading to plans to shut two of the five camps current in operation by next spring. But he expected the decline and remains pleased by the number of volunteers who are still showing up.
Wendy McDonald, the local Habitat for Humanity program manager, is having trouble finding as many volunteers as she needs, as is Shannon Lennox at the Christian Life Center camp in Waveland.
Skilled volunteers in high demand
All of the organizations are especially eager to get volunteers with construction skills. “I need supervising carpenters,” says Johnson. “I need electricians that can work alongside youths, plumbers that can work alongside youths. They get 10 times as much work done and the kids learn a skill set and when they come back, they are better prepared.”
The Corporation for National and Community Service suggests that would-be volunteers who are looking to help in the Katrina zone start at www.volunteer.gov, which indexes a “comprehensive listing of volunteer opportunities in the gulf and across the nation.”
Asked how she would persuade volunteers to come to the hurricane zone, Donna Fairchild says, “It’s really been a blessing, it’s been a ministry to us, we’ve seen miracles. I would guarantee this would not be your last mission.”
“It has been an abundance,” agrees Phil. “And abundance doesn’t mean material things. It means how you feel when you get up in the morning.”
“High on life, you could say,” adds Donna.
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