Church group lends a hand to Crescent City

by: contributed photo, Kenny Russell helps install a new roof at Joy Fellowship Church in Slidell, La.

Kaela Norlen, just shy of 17, picked up the birth certificate that had survived Hurricane Katrina.

She'd found it in a satchel containing various documents owned by a family apparently displaced from its New Orleans home by the flooding that destroyed much of the city following Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

The name on the certificate was Kayla Monay Watkins Webster.

'We have the same name,' Kaela said. 'We're the same age.'

That's when the devastation wrought by Katrina really hit Kaela.

'It happened to kids younger than me,' she said. 'It happened to kids my age.'

Kaela and her mother, Cindy Norlen, have tried to find Kayla by searching the Web, but have had no luck yet.

The Norlens went to New Orleans along with 11 other adults and nine high school students from Columbia Ridge Community Church in Troutdale the week of March 25-31, according to Jared Alcantara, associate pastor. The group was with CrossRoads Missions, a Christian organization working to rebuild homes in flood-ravaged New Orleans, and which maintains a Web site at www.crossroad

Alcantara said his group participated in a variety of projects, including mowing lawns and removing debris from the streets of St. Bernard's Parish; painting classrooms and repairing the roof at Joy Fellowship Church in Slidell; and removing a section of roof from a damaged house in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

'One of the neighbors told us that this particular section of the neighborhood had been under 25 feet of water,' Alcantara said.

The group also mowed the lawn, picked up trash and used a leaf blower to clean up a children's park in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Columbia Ridge members and area businesses raised and donated funds for the trip, church members said. The trip participants were motivated by their faith to go, Alcantara said.

'God calls the church to serve those who are in desperate need and to be a blessing to everyone,' Alcantara said. 'Our faith is about serving God and serving others, especially in hard places.'

Hard places are generally not where teenagers choose to spend spring break, but Kaela said she experienced something her peers who went to Mexico or New York City for vacation didn't.

'This is something I'm going to carry with me the rest of my life,' she said. 'To me, that was more important than a traveling spring break.'

Curiosity and altruism motivated her, she added.

'I wanted to make a positive difference in someone's life,' she said. 'I wanted to see, since (New Orleans) kind of disappeared from the news, whether it was still a problem down there or not.'

Unfortunately, the trip participants found the answer to Kaela's question was a resounding 'yes.'

Barry Smith, who went on the trip with his son, Spencer, 14, said there are still places in the Big Easy that lack electrical power or phone service. He also said the group worked in one neighborhood where completely repaired houses shared the street with ones in various states of repair as well as structures that had been condemned and marked for demolition by the city.

'To see that 19 months later was just unreal,' he said.

Cindy Norlens compared one devastated stretch of New Orleans to seeing a 'ghost town' stretching from Gresham to Hillsboro.

'There are no people here,' she remembered thinking.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the city's population is about half the size it was prior to Katrina, although recent reports indicate more and more residents are returning every day. Still, there's a lot of work to be done, Smith said, adding that he was moved by how many residents told him of their gratitude to the various churches around the country that had sent teams of people to help rebuild.

'It was the church and the volunteer people that was really making the difference down there,' Smith said. 'It made me feel good that I was a part of that.'

'It's been amazing to see how much unity, cooperation and hope can come from tragedy,' Alcantara said. 'People are rebuilding. They are disappointed with the slowness of it, but they also know that there are people from all over the world who care about them and are there to help rebuild.'

The church members all said the trip made them grateful for the blessings in their own lives.

'I think it just reaffirms the value of family and how valuable life is and also there's a need to be just giving of yourself and lend a hand,' Cindy Norlens said.