LEWISTON – “You can’t imagine.”
That was the unanimous sentiment of five L-A people who recently spent several days working on home repairs for a family of six in a hurricane-devastated Mississippi town.
The group gathered Sunday afternoon at the Lewiston home of state Rep. Margaret Craven and her husband, both of whom participated in the nine-day trip in April. They reviewed photos and swapped stories of the unforgettable experience.
Craven presented each of the volunteers with copies of expressions of legislative sentiment passed by the 122nd Maine Legislature in recognition of the group’s humanitarian efforts. The recognition praised the “generosity, energy and compassion” of the volunteers.
Rick Varney of Lewiston, who is employed as a nurse at Androscoggin Home Care and Hospice, was team leader and organizer. Besides the Cravens, he was accompanied by his nephew Jacob Tanguay, 15, of Lewiston, and Michael Turgeon, 17, of Auburn. They joined with three members of a family from Alton, N.H. – David and Ashley Conrad, both in their early 20s, and their mother, Ginger Conrad.
That brought the team to eight. They made the trip in a seven-passenger van and a pickup truck towing an equipment trailer. They spent nearly four days on the road and the better part of five days at work on the Katrina-damaged house in Long Beach, Miss.
Varney said the trip was a total volunteer effort. It was something he had wanted to do since last fall, and after what he calls “a scouting trip” in February, he began looking for people with a similar desire to help the Gulf Coast families who lost homes.
“Everyone raised their own money to pay for the expenses of going down there,” Varney said.
Jim Craven, a volunteer at Androscoggin Home Care and Hospice, learned of Varney’s plan and said he wanted to go. Soon, his wife joined the team. A contractor was among the original volunteers, but had to miss the trip.
To Tanguay, it’s the people of the storm-stricken area that stay in his mind.
“They are able to remain so happy through all of this,” he said. “Their spirit is remarkable.”
Tanguay said his most vivid memory is of the debris that remains all over the area. In particular, he remembers the four- or five-year-old daughter of the family they helped. He recalled how she couldn’t understand why she couldn’t get her toys out of the piles of debris.
The Clark family in Mississippi lost their home, Varney explained. He said the house they worked on is another damaged building that the Clarks had acquired.
The father is a contractor, but since Katrina hit his town, he had been so busy helping others he hadn’t been able to do his own repairs.
“Now he was due to get some help,” Varney said.
The Clark family includes Eddie and Angelia, their 18, 17 and toddler-age daughters, and a pre-teen son.
Rep. Craven said she was told in Mississippi much help came from people in the Northeast, particularly from faith-based groups.
She recalled talking with a man in the town who was working near his swimming pool. She saw it was filled with piles of items: “eyeglasses, underwear, laptops, jewelry, all kinds of personal and private things.”
She said, “I asked if this was where he was throwing the trash. He said, No. It has taken me five days to get the water out of my pool, and this is what was in it.'”
“All the devastation is still there,” Jim Craven remarked. “It’s like it happened yesterday.”
He said the people are remarkably resilient and always have a smile on their face.
Turgeon also was impressed with the spirit people demonstrated.
“I’d do it again. It was pretty great,” he said.
During their stay, the New England team worked on roof and basement repairs.
Varney connected with the Clarks through his participation as an officer of the Royal Rangers, which is a national boys’ outreach organization of the Assemblies of God Church.
“I’ll go again, at least once this year, if not twice,” Varney said.