Riegel: Helping hands

It has been more than two months since the 1,000-year flood devastated parts of the Capital Region. Unfortunately, much of the country has moved on to the next disaster. Even locally, if you don’t live in one of the areas directly affected by the deluge, it’s easy to forget the challenges so many are still dealing with every day.

But at least one nonprofit organization is continuing to attract volunteers from all over the world to come help here. They haven’t forgotten the tragedy of the August flood, and they’re coming to the Capital Region to do dirty, backbreaking work in a hot, humid part of the country that has largely faded from the national spotlight.

The group is All Hands Volunteers. It’s a 12-year-old, nondenominational relief organization that goes into areas affected by natural disasters and coordinates with local governments and faith-based organizations to assess need and deploy volunteers where they can be most effective.

The volunteers cycle in and out. Some are high school or college kids who come to help on a random Saturday or for a few days during fall break. Some are recent college graduates taking time off while trying to figure out what to do next. Some are middle aged or older people who leave their jobs and families for weeks or months at a time. Each has an extraordinary story. Their sacrifices are inspirational.

“I think it’s the hardest job I’ve ever done in my life,” says Jo Dixon, a 40-something grandmother from London who quit her job as the manager of a retail store in the U.K. to join All Hands here on Oct. 1. “It’s hard to hear the stories behind the piles of possessions.”

But Dixon says it’s well worth it. Like most situations where people step outside their comfort zone to help those in real need, Dixon says she’s getting much more out of the experience than she’s giving.

Don’t be fooled, however. Dixon and her colleagues are giving a lot. They work 10-hour days mucking and gutting moldy homes, of which there are still thousands in this area. They sleep on the floor of youth group hall at the New Covenant Church in Denham Springs, which is graciously hosting them. They spend their one free day a week doing laundry at a nearby laundromat. In the eight weeks since they’ve been here they’ve gutted nearly 100 homes.

Dixon always wanted to do something like this but had a daughter at home and couldn’t take off. Now her daughter is grown and has a child of her own, and one night in mid-August, while watching TV in her London flat, Dixon saw a news story about the flooding in Baton Rouge and said to herself, “Why can’t I go do something like that?”

She gave her employer notice, and spent the next few weeks researching disaster relief organizations. She decided All Hands was the best option for several reasons. It doesn’t make its volunteers pay to participate, unlike most such agencies. Rather, it feeds and houses them. Also, All Hands has a proven track record around the world and glowing reviews from former participants and recipients. Since its founding in the wake of the 2004 Thailand earthquake, thousands of All Hands volunteers have helped out at 69 disaster sites.

On a recent Sunday, I met Dixon and some of those volunteers at a work site on Hooper Road in Central. They included Jeff Kuhn, a student from Amherst College in New Hampshire, who’s taking a semester off to travel the country. He decided to make Denham Springs his first stop and ended up staying more than five weeks.

Also on the team was Jessica Keatin, who took a week off from her job in the department of environmental protection in New York City to “get away from the politicians and do some real work.” She was supposed to stay just five days but extended the trip to 10.

There was also Maria Amador, a recent college graduate from southern Spain, who wanted to see the world and help people in needy areas; and Alexandra Koutsoftas, a recent architecture graduate from Germany, who thought gutting and rebuilding houses would be good experience in her future career.

Then there was David Rexrode, who took a leave of absence from his position in the marketing and franchising department at Papa John’s Pizza in Gulfport, Mississippi, to work with All Hands. He says it was a personal debt that he owed to the organization and the universe.

“They came to Gulfport and Biloxi after Katrina, where we were flooded,” he says. “I always swore if I had an opportunity to make it up, somehow, I would.”

Since first coming to the Capital Region, some 250 All Hands volunteers have put in some 1,500 volunteer days. The group’s funding—most of which comes from grants and private donations—lasts through the end of November. Organizers are hoping to stay longer, but it will depend: Funding is scarce and, with devastation from Hurricane Matthew in Haiti and North Carolina, volunteer interest in sleepy south Louisiana is waning.

Perhaps that will change with greater awareness about the program and the volunteers who make it possible. Let’s hope. After a year of countless tragedies—to say nothing of a presidential race that has laid bare the ugly underbelly of human nature—it’s uplifting to see true goodness at work in our community coming from all corners of the globe.

For more information on All Hands Volunteers go to hands.org

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