Within 24 hours of saying "yes" to co-coordinating Katrina relief efforts at her home church, Tabernacle Baptist Church in Ennis, Texas, Stacy Hejny was surrounded by thousands of pounds of food, donated clothes, and enough mattresses to line the church's gymnasium. Tabernacle hadn't just opened its doors to evacuees, it had become an official American Red Cross shelter. And Stacy, a 36-year-old working mom, was one of two people in charge of the small army of volunteers it took to keep Tabernacle's "Operation Love" running smoothly. Her co-director was Mike Sellers, Tabernacle's associate pastor.
The task was daunting, as more that 40 exhausted evacuees in Ennis recuperated from their ordeals and waited for homes. Many were from an interconnected group of neighbors and family from the flooded-out Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Working 16-hour days while on a hiatus from her job with her family's cabinetry contracting business, Stacy served families grappling with loss and grief after their flight from the submerged city, meeting needs in order to help restore their fractured lives.
Although the church furnished mattresses—arranged on the gym floor by family groupings—Stacy and the other volunteers soon discovered the logistics of operating a shelter extended far past providing beds. People needed help filling out paperwork for FEMA assistance and lost licenses. Kathy Cikanek, an administrator with the Ennis Independent School District, spent her Labor Day holiday registering evacuees' children into the district's schools; her daughters helped shop for suitable school clothes.
Medical care was another major issue. Dr. W.B. Kinzie, the city's health officer, was one of several physicians who came to a hastily set-up clinic at the church to tend to evacuees who'd been immersed in polluted water.
"These people needed to be loved and cared for as much as they needed shampoo, blankets, and a mattress," Stacy recalls. Volunteers made such a huge ministry possible, she says—and in turn empowered the evacuees they hosted. "The community really came together to care for these people, and that motivated the evacuees to want to help themselves," she says. Stacy told the group that more than 400 people from the Ennis area called to see how they could help.
Stacy stayed in a walking state of prayer while coordinating "Operation Love." "None of this was done in man's power. Without God's strength, it would have been impossible," Stacy explains.
Two weeks after opening their doors to evacuees, the Tabernacle volunteers' efforts were rewarded. The Ennis evacuees received their FEMA grants and were ushered to a local apartment complex, where they started the long process of rebuilding their lives. Follow-up teams of counselors, pastors, and volunteers continue to help with everything from food and furniture to spiritual guidance. Several evacuees—like Gail and Don Provost—now attend Tabernacle Baptist Church. "It was difficult for them to house so many people, but their response to us was genuinely Christian," Gail says.
Stacy cites her sons—Adam, 17, and Andrew, 13—as part of her motivation to step out and be part of God's work. "I want my kids to know how to serve, and if I don't participate, my children won't see that. We're all called to serve. It was just a privilege to be part of something that was obviously a God thing."
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January/February 2006, Vol. 28, No. 1, Page 32