The impact of Hurricanes Laura and Delta continues to be felt nearly two years after the storms made landfall in southwest Louisiana – and will likely continue to be felt for years. But even if the pain remains, there is also hope, knowing that teams of local and external volunteers continually choose to spend their vacations and school holidays here to help people and families.
SWLA Responds was born out of this hope, created so that effective use of volunteers and resources can get more homes fixed.
“It’s a coalition of 40-50 churches that came together around the idea that they all had a similar mission to love the people of our community and a desire to do so in a tangible and inspiring way. We decided we could do better together,” said Reverend Braylon Harris, executive director/coalition coordinator at SWLA Responds and senior pastor of Mount Olive Baptist Church. “We were all hurting, we didn’t all have all of our facilities or all of our members or all of our resources, so we realized that doing it together would be the best way. None of us had everything we needed, but when we got together, we all had the unique pieces that suited us.
Harris said SWLA Responds was inspired by Houston Responds, which was founded after Hurricane Harvey made landfall.
“Churches showed us what worked for them after Harvey and the idea really took off,” Harris said. “Southwest Louisiana is already community driven and it didn’t take long to sit down and realize we could do more together.”
He said the group coordinates volunteers and connects people with the right projects.
“The ecumenical effort has been unprecedented in my view and is a prime example of the silver lining of such storms,” Harris said. “It’s Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Pentecostal, Catholic, non-denominational, Nazarene, Mennonite, Amish who come together, love God and love people.”
He said the group is taking love into an action word on a whole new level, raising nearly $2 million over the past two years, facilitating 3,000 volunteers – 700 volunteers come in June alone – and repairing hundreds of homes.
“It was a Herculean effort on God’s part and we can just see it happening,” Harris said.
Reverend Chan Willis, pastor of First Presbyterian Church and partner of SWLA Responds, said the group meets the needs of those who cannot help themselves.
“We don’t deal with insurance agencies at all, they’re all people with no resources,” Willis said. “We meet them where they are.”
Both Willis and Harris said what amazes them are the continual offers from groups wanting to come to southwest Louisiana to help rebuild, even nearly two years after the storms hit.
“When it gets to 12 months, so many times the recovery is blocked, whether it’s people who don’t think about that particular place anymore, nobody wants to go there anymore, other disasters have happened and now we’re in the sophomore year and we’re still able to bring in hundreds every month and it shows how it was handled in year one and how we worked together and the experiences we created.
Bill Powell, director of disaster response for the United Methodist Conference, said their partnership with SWLA Responds has been “a divine thing from the start.”
“We had a limited amount of money and after four weeks it was pretty clear that we didn’t have enough, but all of these non-profits started donating what they could and when all the pieces went assembled, Lake Charles got $827,000 in assistance and labor in 10 and a half weeks,” Powell said.
Harris said several recent monetary donations to the group are matched by donors outside the area, so even more dollars are helping these organizations help people in the area — at least $350,000 has just been donated from funds from the Community Foundation for collaborative work with SWLA Responds, United Methodist Conference and SBP Disaster Response & Recovery who will be 100% matched.
“The reason it works is that we all have a common mission and we let go of our egos, our theological stuff and said our purpose was to be God’s feet and hands here in the field and to helping people in need. Period. And that’s what we did,” Powell said.
Harris said that this summer, several groups of young volunteers will come, focusing on schools and parks.
“You go into the schools and you realize, ‘Man, it’s been two years and these schools still don’t have permanent roofs, active leaks continue, patchwork here and there, it’s a sad situation,'” said Harris: “All the landscaping has been blown away and no one has time to do it because they have bigger fish to fry. It’s those little things that make a school a school we’re going to work on.
Powell, who helped bring Amish volunteers to help rebuild in the area, said by August 8, there will be more than 10 homes managed, approved and ready to work when members of this community arrive. in October for a second round of volunteering.
“The Amish came to us as strangers, they became friends, and they came home as family,” said Powell, who along with his wife, Katherine, has in return visited the Amish community. in their homes in Ohio.
“You never thank God for a disaster, but God gives you an opportunity through disasters to pull yourself together and be the body of Christ and that’s what happened here. We are rebuilding a community here, not just in terms of physical structures, but in terms of people and their lives.