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Project Noah draws high-school students to help Katrina victims

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A UMNS photo by John Gordon

George Ragsdale talks to the youth volunteers before they begin their work day restoring houses in Covington, La.
June 27, 2006

By John Gordon*

SLIDELL, La. (UMNS)—High-school students from across the country are giving up part of their summer vacations to help hurricane victims, while getting a living history lesson and a dose of Cajun culture along the way.

About 1,000 students from United Methodist churches in 24 states have signed up for Project Noah (New Orleans Area Hope). Each group will spend a week rebuilding flooded and wind-battered homes in the Slidell and Covington areas near New Orleans.

“I was overwhelmed with the response,” said Project Noah director George Ragsdale, who heads the youth ministry at First United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge.

“These kids have given up baseball camps and baseball games and summer camps and money out of their pocket to come down and make a difference and to make an impact on the people who are still affected by Hurricane Katrina,” he said.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Rosetta Beuchat-Zweig says she is grateful to Project Noah volunteers who are repairing her home.

The groups get a taste of the area’s unique culture with a makeshift Mardi Gras parade of floats made of hurricane debris.

They also tour some of New Orleans’ hardest-hit areas, including the Lower Ninth Ward. Most are surprised by the extent of the damage.

“I didn’t think it was going to be too bad,” said Paul David Foster, 15, a Project Noah volunteer from First United Methodist Church in Hartwell, Ga.

“And then we went across that bridge and there was nothing there,” he said. “So, it was mind-blowing.”

Foster was one of 19 youth from his church who signed up to help. One of their projects was putting up sheetrock at the home of Rosetta Beauchat-Zweig, 84, who is now living in a FEMA trailer after her home was flooded by three-and-a-half feet of water.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Bobby Lewis, 15, of First United Methodist Church in Hartwell, Ga., hangs drywall in a home damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

“I can’t say how much I appreciate what they’re doing,” said Beauchat-Zweig. “These youngsters are doing work that I can’t possibly even help them with.”

This is the second time Beauchat-Zweig has found herself starting over in less than three years. Her house was destroyed earlier by a fire. She rebuilt, and Katrina hit four months later.

“It’s just wonderful to see them doing this,” she said.

The students do not complain, even as they sweat in the muggy south Louisiana climate.

“During the day, it feels hot,” said Shana Toney, 16, also a member of First United Methodist in Hartwell. “But after you’ve gotten it all done and you’ve known that you made a difference and you’ve seen how these people react to helping them, it’s a really good feeling.”

Johnny Williamson, 16, said the students are helping coastal residents rise above the “wrath of Mother Nature.”

“If you have a bunch of people working together, you can overcome a lot of things,” he said.

Besides learning construction skills, the students are also living a part of history.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Project Noah volunteers view the damage in New Orleans' hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward.

“These students will be able to look back and say, ‘Look, I saw that, I saw history. I was not (just) a reader of history. But I saw what happened and I saw the devastation and I saw the plight of the people,’” said Ragsdale.

Organizers first thought about 200 students might sign up for Project Noah, which continues through July. Many of the damaged houses targeted by the volunteers are mobile homes where elderly residents live.

The program is full and no longer taking registrations. But Ragsdale said he hopes to extend it beyond this year—while also encouraging students to pursue mission opportunities near their own homes.

“Hopefully, by going down through those areas so affected, they’ll be able to look around them when they get back to their homes in California or Washington or Florida and see the need and be able to respond,” he said.

“I hope that as teenagers go back from here…that their lives will be different, because I know that the people’s houses that they work on lives will be different.”

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

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or

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