Age poses no barrier for Katrina relief workers

March 02, 2006

By John Gordon*

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OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss. (UMNS) - Aubrey Smith laced up his work boots under a cloudy Mississippi sky.

He could have been home enjoying his favorite pastimes, fishing or playing golf. Instead, he traveled 400 miles to aid families whose homes were destroyed and whose lives were thrown into chaos by Hurricane Katrina.

"They just need a lot of help," he said.

At 85, Smith is still going strong and wanted to volunteer.

"There was an article in our church paper that said they were looking for volunteers to come down and help with the devastation down here," he said. "And I had the time, maybe a little bit of talent."

Smith was the oldest of 18 members of First United Methodist Church in Guntersville, Ala., who came to lend a hand in Ocean Springs. They spent three days cleaning debris and rebuilding houses.

"I've never seen such devastation," said Smith. "It's unbelievable, when you see boats that are blown way up in the forest and a beautiful home here that's completely wrecked."

Smith had no trouble keeping up with crew members less than half his age. He pushed wheelbarrows filled with glass and other debris, hammered out rotted flooring and tore down moldy Sheetrock.

"I had to have a water break before he did this morning, I believe," said fellow church member Matt Triplett, 41. "He's a hard worker. He's a good man to have around."

The crew stayed in a tent city that has housed more than 3,000 relief workers from churches in all 50 states and more than a dozen foreign countries. The camp is behind St. Paul United Methodist Church in Ocean Springs.

The C.O.R.E. (Christians Organized for Relief Efforts) base was hastily organized after the storm hit Aug. 29. The camp is run by members of two Houston-area churches - Gateway Community Church, a United Methodist congregation, and Gloria Dei Lutheran Church.

Eric Cummings, a Gateway member who coordinates crew assignments, has seen all ages - from 18, the minimum allowed to work in the camp, to helpers in their 80s. Many of the volunteers are retired and in their 60s or 70s.

"The age has nothing to do with it. It's the heart that matters," Cummings said. "And the older folks, if you will, the more-seasoned folks, they have the heart for it. And that's what shows."

'It means the world

Smith said he hesitated at first to make the trip because of his age, but he feels "very vital" and enjoyed the work.

"The most pleasant part of it is working with friends from the church, making new friends," he said, "and just getting out and flexing my muscles and getting some exercise."

While the Guntersville crew was cleaning up a home flooded by the hurricane, owner Marie Mullen stopped by to say thanks - and give Smith a hug.

"For those of us who have lost everything here on the coast, volunteers like you coming to help us means so much," Mullen said through tears. "Thank you. It means the world to us."

When the storm hit, Mullen, a marine biologist, and her husband were in the process of buying the house. Before they could move, their other home in Ocean Springs was destroyed, and they now live in a trailer.

Their insurance claim was denied.

"We are still continuing to pay a mortgage and home equity on a house that no longer exists," she explained, "and a mortgage on this new property, starting over with completely zero. And the help of volunteers means absolutely everything to us."

A new mission

Smith is a retired engineer who worked at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. He said one of his assignments was trying to find a way to harness nuclear power for aircraft. The project was eventually scrapped.

But as he hammered walls and carried out debris, Smith had found a new mission in life. And he encouraged others to volunteer and help victims along the Gulf Coast.

"These people are in great need," he said. "So if you got a little time, come down here and work. You'll be proud of yourself if you do."

*Gordon is a freelance producer and writer based in Marshall, Texas.

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