Catholic Charities Operation Helping Hands

“It’s not enough to hear the word of God, but to act on it,” Deacon Steve Ferran said July 20 at a “Welcome Home” gathering for Mary and Shelton Roberts of New Orleans East.

            The Roberts’ home was the 200th rebuilt by Catholic Charities’ Operation Helping Hands program, and Ferran, the newly appointed vice president of Catholic Identity and Mission of Catholic Charities Archdiocese New Orleans, led a prayer thanking God for the mercy and goodness of the volunteers who worked on it.

           

 “We welcome home the family whose house this is,” he said.

            Like so many others in New Orleans, homeowners the Roberts fled their home the day before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. They landed in Atlanta, Ga., where their son, Pierre, was attending Clark University and stayed until 2008.

            They found a contractor they thought they could trust to rebuild their home through friends. He had prayed with them before he started the project, leading the Roberts’ to believe he was a “God-fearing person.”

            Two weeks before their return home in 2008, they visited their home only to discover no work had been performed by the contractor.

            “He was a crook and ran off with $50,000,” Mary Roberts said. “He told me my house was ready, and I came back and found out nothing was done. It was a big, old crime.”

Christians helping one another

            It was Roberts’ aunt who mentioned contacting Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans’ Operation Helping Hands in 2010. They met the criteria for Operation Helping Hands’s rebuilding program by having hurricane damage, contractor fraud, meeting federal income poverty requirements, and being disabled (Shelton is recovering from prostate cancer). And, the project was doable for Operation Helping Hands, although it was among the largest the nonprofit has tackled.

            Kevin Fitzpatrick, program director for Catholic Charities’ Operation Helping Hands, said approximately 150 volunteers spent 90 days working on the Roberts’ 1,800-square-foot home. Work began in mid-April. The cost of rebuilding: approximately $22,000, not counting the value of the volunteer labor or the agency’s operating costs.

            “That’s why we were able to get it done quickly,” Fitzpatrick said.

            Volunteers ranged from high school students working in Catholic Charities’ summer SERVE program to students from the University of Notre Dame’s Service Corp and Notre Dame Mission Volunteers – AmeriCorps in Baltimore and many others.     Fitzpatrick spoke about the remarkable young volunteers, who for the past five years, have helped hundreds return to New Orleans.

            “This house is a labor of love and it’s also a labor of prayer,” Fitzpatrick said. “Whatever we do, we do in the spirit of prayer. … Those who came and offered service came away and felt blessed and have made a different life choice about how they want to live their lives. We’re happy we gave people a chance to provide a service.”

            Molly Sherry, a Notre Dame Mission Volunteer, began working for Operation Helping Hands in 2010 after graduation from St. Anselm College.

            “It’s been the most unbelievable year,” Sherry said. “We’re trying to give them back their house, but they give us hope, unbelievable hope.”

Overwhelming gratitude

            The Roberts – she’s 54, and he will be 54 Aug. 13 – repeatedly thanked everyone who helped them get home. They plan to honor volunteers with a photo over their fireplace mantel.

            “They put in all the Sheetrock, cabinets, flooring, did all the painting, everything,” Mary Roberts said about Operation Helping Hands. “I would not be back in this home if not for them. I had been trying to find a way to make a loan (but couldn’t). I am so excited. It’s a wonderful feeling to know my house is paid for. No one can come knowing no my door and say, ‘Get out.’ … God is good.”

            At the celebration, Mary Roberts refreshed the memory of her nieces, Christine Smith, 19, and Camarie Bibbins, 13, of the house’s interior six years ago.

            “This was the guest bedroom,” Mary Roberts pointed out. “And, that was Pierre’s bedroom right there.”

            “I remember when we used to sleep over and run through the doors to the dining room and around the kitchen,” Christine Smith said.

            “We had some fun days here,” Mary Roberts said.

            Since Hurricane Katrina, Catholic Charities Operation Helping Hands has gutted approximately 2,000 homes, painted more than 400 and rebuilt 200 with the help of 30,000 volunteers. Operation Helping Hands is currently rebuilding or repainting 25 additional structures Fitzpatrick said.

            “We’re not going to stop doing this until everybody comes home,” Gordon Wadge, president and CEO of Catholic Charities, said. “We all have a right to come home.”

            Mary Roberts said her parents, Mary Bibbins, 76, and Nathaniel Bibbins, 83, would live with them as they have since Hurricane Katrina.

            “It’s been a long road, and it’s finally here,” Mary Roberts said. “Through it all, we survived.”

            Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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