After the storm: Hope from small hands and big hearts

Seventh in a series
By Kathy L. Gilbert

Aug. 27, 2015 | NEW ORLEANS (UMNS)

Sam Guyette (foreground) holds a camera on a selfie stick for a group photo with volunteers from First United Methodist Church of Santa Monica, Calif., and Betty Johnson at her home in New Orleans’ Upper 9th Ward. Repairs to Johnson’s home were nearing completion almost 10 years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

On a blistering hot day in July, teams of young volunteers from Beverly Hills, California and Wichita Falls, Texas, were painting the walls in Betsy Johnson’s East New Orleans’ house.

Johnson has been trying to move back home for 10 years.

“Hurricane Katrina swept in in 2005 and swept me out,” she said. She had lived in this house since 1988.

“It was very difficult to realize all your hard work and time and effort was just eliminated overnight,” she said, sitting on a milk crate in the shade on her small concrete back porch. The excited chatter of dozens of volunteers floats through the screened back door.

She is hoping and praying to be back inside her home before Thanksgiving. She dreams of cooking Christmas dinner as she always did before Katrina.

The volunteers are excited and overwhelmed by what Johnson has endured.

“This woman has been out of her home for 10 years since Katrina and once this happens (her home finished) she will be able to move in for the first time in 10 years,” said Tricia Lindley, youth director at First United Methodist Church of Santa Monica, California.

“Isn’t that amazing? Just the sense of home you need and for a decade you would be waiting for that … It’s just incredible and devastating. It is really inspiring how motivated and committed these youth are.”

The young people flock to Johnson when she comes to check on their progress. They pull her over to a small flower garden they made under a tree in her backyard. They painted rocks with their names and inspirational messages for Johnson.

Johnson patiently poses for several “selfies” before the volunteers get back to work.

She starts talking about the days right after Hurricane Katrina.

“I kept watching the news and Mary Landrieu (U.S. senator from Louisiana) kept pointing to a chart saying, ‘If we get a flood, this is how high the water is going to be. I kept saying then, ‘I definitely won’t be here.’”

Johnson tried to stick it out in New Orleans but finally loaded her 1997 Sierra with eight people and drove to Baton Rouge. She ended up in Maryland for four years, where her spouse had a heart attack and died in 2009. She moved back to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 2010 and is now living in New Orleans in a “senior citizen’s apartment.”

Betty Johnson has been out of her home in New Orleans’ Upper 9th Ward since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. She hopes to be cooking Thanksgiving dinner there this year with the help of volunteers from the Epworth Project at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Slidell, La.

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Over the years she tried many times to get her home repaired.

“I did have some problems; everyone is not as honest as you like to think they are,” Johnson said.

In desperation, she saw an ad saying volunteers were available to help homeowners. That ad lead her to Epworth Project at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Slidell, Louisiana.

Someone from Epworth came out and took measurements soon after she called in 2012. “The woman who came out told me they were going to get to me but just have a little patience,” Johnson said. “I called her every month.”

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Betty Johnson, homeowner in East New Orleans, has been waiting to get back into her house since Hurricane Katrina hit 10 years ago. Now, thanks to teams of United Methodist volunteers, it looks like she will be home in time for Christmas.

Volunteers started coming to her East New Orleans home in June 2014 and they just keep coming, she said. “Within the last two months, the big work has been done. They came in like lightning and I met them all and they were all young people,” she said, pointing to her rescuers. They range in age from 12 years old to early 20s.

“They are so young, they are so nice, they are so light-hearted,” she said. “It’s been hot. This has been so humbling to me, so special. I know we got good people in the world.”

For Tyler Colley, a worship intern at Wichita Falls United Methodist Church in Texas, this first mission trip with his young workers is inspiring.

“The Lord is bringing us to Louisiana to Miss Betty to help get her in her home after 10 years,” Colley said. “That’s a really long time not to be in your house. She is not left out, she is loved and being taken care of.”

Johnson said the weight has been lifted.

“I’m so appreciative of Epworth Project. I’m not saying I can forget Hurricane Katrina but I just want to feel like I’m finished with it.”

Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter in Nashville. Contact her at newsdesk@umcom.orgor 615-742-5470.

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