Monday, January 16, 2006

Bringing aid to Hackberry

This story first appeared in the Tri-Valley Herald on Jan. 16, 2006. Used by permission.

By Doug Mead

After Hurricane Rita devasted the Gulf Coast last summer, most people were fleeing the area in search of food and shelter.

But not three members of Cornerstone Fellowship in Livermore. Pastor Mark Comella and his wife, Debbie, and pastor Jarrett Petero jumped on a flight to Houston, rented a car and headed toward New Orleans.

They left the interstate and headed south near Lake Charles, La., in search of gasoline and came upon scenes of destruction: downed power lines and trees and dead livestock. The group sort of stumbled upon two women sifting through a pile of rubble from their trailer, which no longer existed.

“We just got out of the car and asked if we could help her (Miss Effi),”said Comella, pastor of caregiving at Cornerstone. “She was in tears. We just spent time with her and talked with her, prayed with her.

“Her husband came home. He hadn’t been home since the hurricane six days ago. He hadn’t seen everything he owned was gone. He was stoic. He was pretty tough, joking a little as he went through stuff. He found a picture of his brother. His home was destroyed. I asked him if he wanted to keep the picture. ‘That’s my brother. He’s passed away. It’s the only picture I have of him.’ He broke down, sobbing. He’d come to the realization he’d lost everything.”

Four days later back in Livermore, Comella and Petero met with senior pastor Steve Madsen, and they quickly decided to send teams back as soon as possible.

That started an ongoing relationship between Cornerstone and the town of Hackberry, La., population 1,700 before the storm, approximately 1,100 today. The people of Cornerstone joke that they’ve “adopted” Hackberry, which isn’t far from the truth. The church has sent about 110 short-term relief workers and raised $220,000 in aid for Hackberry in the past four months.

Within a week, the church sent the first of 10 missions teams to Hackberry, about three hours west of New Orleans. The 11th is set to leave Jan. 17.

Each team has had at least eight people and as many as 15 spend a week at a time in the town. Last year teams worked on tearing down damaged homes, while this year’s teams will build. At Christmas, 204 families were adopted,with toys, clothes and toiletries sent from Livermore in a semi-tractor and trailer. A team cooked Christmas dinner for 450 people.

The church says it will keep sending money and people as long as there is a need.

For Ted Prince of Livermore, helping people in need comes second nature.He is 67, semi-retired and owns a cleaning business, so he can pick up and go when he chooses. After 9/11, he went with a Cornerstone group and worked on the relief effort at Ground Zero. He was planning to go to Thailand last fall when Rita ravaged the Gulf Coast. Suddenly a closer locale made more sense to him.

Last week, Prince made his third trip to Hackberry. He said he has grown fond of the town.

“I think it’s the sense of helping people in need, people that have lost everything,” he said from Hackberry by cell phone. “They don’t have homes, some of them. We get here, we help them clean out their house, get life in order a little.

“We’ve been able to do things where they’ve jumped for joy, thanked us up and down. We prayed for them, helped restore them to some sense of being normal. ... A crisis tends to get you off your duff, get you going.”

Prince said he was startled at the massive amount of destruction wrought by Rita.

“It overwhelmed us,” he said. “When we first came in here, we saw homes in huge piles. There was so much destruction. ... I’m guessing there are 400 homes here ... and probably up to a third or half of the homes have been destroyed. That’s quite a bit for a small town where everybody knows everybody and everbody’s related.”

Brown’s Market is the center of Hackberry. Before Rita, there were other stores in town, but now it’s the only one. It’s also the only gas station in town. Jimmy Brown has his ears to the ground and keeps the Cornerstone people in touch with those most in need. As Prince says, Brown “knows everybody.”

Gayle Chin of Livermore is a single mom with three children, the youngest 12, the oldest 19. In November, she was in between jobs and the timing was right for her to go to Hackberry with Cornerstone’s sixth group. She was the only woman to go, and during the trip she was invited to a monthly men’s Bible study in town.

She said it takes a spirit of wanting to give to others, because hard work is involved, and the accommodations are not even one star. The team sleeps on cots in classrooms at First Baptist Church.

“I helped clear debris,” Chin said proudly. “Trees had fallen from the storm and from the flooding. I didn’t get to use a chainsaw, but I moved the branches to the trucks. I helped with meals. We visited with people. Hopefully, we made a difference in their lives. It was a great experience. It was very fulfilling.”

Hackberry is in Cameron parish, considered among the most impoverished in Louisiana. It is Cajun country, and the shrimping industry dominates the region.Several boats were destroyed by Rita, but, oddly, the shrimping business has picked up since the storm as more shrimp seem to have been swept upstream in the Calcasieu River from the Gulf of Mexico. Oil is the other big employer in the region.

People who live in Hackberry generally have family in the area and have been there awhile. Life is slower, and people like it that way. Brown’s Market is the closest thing to a Starbucks, and yes he serves coffee.

Brown, 50, moved to Hackberry 27 years ago when he bought the market that bears his name. He grew up down the road in Cameron. In his lifetime, he’s never seen anything like what Rita wrought.

What has Cornerstone’s presence meant to the people of Hackberry?

“There are probably no words to describe it,” Brown says. “They’ve been working hard helping people. A lot of people just don’t know where to turn to. They’re filling the void with hope. That hope mostly is spiritual hope in the Lord. Their physical needs are being met. It’s been overwhelming.

“(The Cornerstone people) have big hearts. They’re willing to help. It’s such great sacrifices they’re making. They forsake everything they have there to come out and help. That’s a wonderful thing. They’re just being God’s hands is what they’re doing.”


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