When Hurricane Katrina roared ashore in Louisiana 11 years ago, the Bennett family in Pearl River was among many who lost their home to the storm. And, like many other families along the Gulf Coast, Timothy and Danielle Bennett and their children are still feeling the effects, having spent the past 10 years living in a FEMA trailer.
This week, however, a new Fuller Center home is being constructed on the very property where logger Timothy Bennett was raised thanks to the Ginger Ford Northshore Fuller Center, a local group calling itself Compassion Pearl River and a whole lot of kind-hearted mission workers from Salem Reformed Church of Little Rock, Iowa, who are spending a week in the Louisiana heat and humidity helping the Bennetts have a simple, decent place to live.
The seeds for this rapidly moving project, though, were planted about four years ago with a little Mother’s Day video.
Travis Bennett, now 17, was attending First Baptist Church of Pearl River by himself at the time. When he participated in the church’s filming of a little video called “My Mommy Is the Best Mommy in the World Because …,” life for the Bennetts would begin to change for the better.
“He told his mama, ‘I’m going to be talking about you in church Sunday; if you want to know what I’m going to say, you’ve gotta come,'” recalled the Rev. Tobey Pitman of First Baptist, also a leader of the Compassion Pearl River effort. “So, the whole family came that Sunday, and they’ve been coming ever since.”
Shortly afterward, Pitman went to visit the Bennetts at their home.
“The thing was tore up after 10 years of use, and they just needed a better place to live,” he said of seeing the FEMA trailer for the first time. “When I left that day, I just felt compelled to the Lord to find better living accommodations for this family. I asked them if they’d mind if we poked around and looked for something.”
Pitman rallied his church behind the mission and helped lead the formation of Compassion Pearl Group, an unofficial group now united around the cause of helping local families in need. What he needed to help the Bennetts was someone who knew how to lead a charitable house building effort. He could not find such a nonprofit in St. Tammany Parish, but he did find one in neighboring Tangipahoa Parish — home of the Ginger Ford Northshore Fuller Center for Housing, led by Executive Director Tamara Danel.
“I knew of Tamara, her reputation, and I knew pastors who had worked with her on other projects,” Pitman said. “I just made a phone call, and she seemed intrigued to be able to help over here in St. Tammany Parish, although it’s not one of her normal places to work. So, The Fuller Center was kinda the first stepping stone that came into play for us.”
Volunteers come from Little Rock, Iowa
While Danel was pleased to hear that First Baptist and the local Pearl River community were ready to help fund the home build, the city was well out of Ginger Ford Northshore’s normal service area. Organizing volunteers for a faraway build might have been too daunting a task — until someone from Salem Reformed Church in Little Rock, Iowa, called Fuller Center for Housing headquarters in Americus, Ga., asking if there were any service opportunities for a group of nearly 50 people. Director of U.S. Covenant Partner Development Stacey Odom-Driggers immediately contacted Danel to let her know finding volunteers for this project was not going to be a problem.
“In just a little bit of time, (Danel) connected with me and said I’ve got this 50-member group of volunteers that want to come and do this work,” Pitman said. “So, suddenly we had this experienced builder come alongside, and suddenly we had an experienced build team want to be here. Pieces just began to fall together in place pretty quickly.”
Ginger Ford Northshore is used to new home builds that take a few months, but Salem Reformed Church has hit the ground running this week.
“It’s probably the fastest build we’ve ever hosted, for sure,” Danel said by phone from the site on Wednesday. “They all come from farming communities, and many of them are farmers so they are used to working dawn to dusk. They just have a very strong work ethic. It’s very fun to watch them. They all want to stay busy doing something productive.”
“We got to meet the family on the first day and the looks on their faces, they were just kind of speechless. They were like, wow, this is really happening. We know that this will change their lives forever.” — Curt Schilling, deacon, Salem Reformed Church of Little Rock, Iowa
After years of waiting for a home, Danielle Bennett also is impressed by seeing the project progress from slab to a fully shaped home in one week.
“It’s happening pretty fast,” said Bennett, who also has 9-year-old twins Susan and Mary living in her trailer, while three older children have left the nest. “This is a total blessing and something that we would have never dreamed of two years ago, that we would possibly be into a new house of our own.”
“This is our third house build, and it’s going well,” said Curt Schilling, a deacon at Salem Reformed Church and de facto spokesman for the mission group. “We think it makes such a huge impact on a family. We got to meet the family on the first day and the looks on their faces, they were just kind of speechless. They were like, wow, this is really happening. We know that this will change their lives forever.”
Schilling said the church’s first home building mission was nine years ago in Montana, followed by builds six years ago and three years ago in Texas. While it changes the lives of families like the Bennetts, it also strengthens Salem Reformed’s church family.
“When you go to a church of 300 members or whatever, you know a select group of the church,” Schilling said. “You know of them, know their families, talk to them on Sundays. But you don’t really get to know them, you don’t get to really be personal with them as much as you’d like. This trip really grows our church together.
“It builds it up and just makes things change and makes things so much more positive when we get back to church,” he added. “People see how other people work and how they want to be blessings to other people. It’s just a lot of fun for everybody also. It’s just kind of a togetherness thing. It’s a blessing for the family that’s getting this house but it’s a huge blessing for those of us at the church, even though it’s a lot of hard work … but it doesn’t really seem like work because you’re with a bunch of people that have this same common goal, we’re having fun together and we’re making it more like fun than like work, actually.”
“They enjoy being with each other, and they enjoy using a lot of different talents that God has given them. They’re very happy, joyous and loving people and very hard, hard workers.” — Tamara Danel, talking about volunteers from Salem Reformed Church
Danel said she is impressed by how “mission-minded” the visiting church members are, but just as striking is the fellowship and joy they show even as they fight through the southeastern Louisiana heat and humidity.
“They enjoy being with each other, and they enjoy using a lot of different talents that God has given them,” she said. “They’re very happy, joyous and loving people and very hard, hard workers.”
Schilling confirmed Danel’s impression of the church as mission-minded.
“We don’t just like to show up on Sunday and show back up the next Sunday,” he said. “We like to show by example. We like to be leaders by example, not just leaders of talk. Everybody can talk the talk, but when you can really walk the talk, it really shows everybody else that you mean business.”
What’s next for the Pearl River community?
Kathryn Walsh, who has been a member of Pearl River’s Board of Aldermen for more than five years, is getting a crash course in The Fuller Center for Housing’s principles of offering a hand-up in partnership to families in need instead of a handout. She is impressed with how The Fuller Center requires families to perform sweat equity and how families are able to pay it forward by making zero-interest, no-profit-made mortgage payments into a fund to help other families in the area get the same kind of hand-up.
“Even myself, I did not realize that they pay it back,” Walsh said. “They’re taking classes about how to be better citizens and residents of the town. They’re taking financial courses. There’s the requirement of giving back. Mr. Bennett has been here in the evenings after he’s worked all day, so he’s contributing his part. The wife has been here serving water and doing the things that she can do. They’re realizing that people have to give back what they receive in some kind of way. But it’s a learning curve for a lot of us, including myself. I’ve never been involved with this, and I’m glad the first time is in my hometown.”
Walsh hopes that this project serves as a springboard for similar empowerment projects in the community.
“They’re still kinda learning about it, but they’re excited as they pass by and see how quickly it’s going up, and they’re asking questions,” she said. “Now, they’re excited and on fire about it. We’ve never had something like this in the community. I think it’ll take off really well now that they see the first one being done. I hope that we can continue this.”
“It seems like everybody is appreciative of what we’re doing for this family, and they’re happy for the family. The house that we’re building them is off one of the main roads through town, and I think every single car that goes by either honks or waves. It’s a pretty cool sight.” — Curt Schilling, deacon, Salem Reformed Church
The community’s excitement has been noticed by the visitors from Iowa, as well.
“It seems like everybody is appreciative of what we’re doing for this family, and they’re happy for the family,” Schilling said. “You’re never sure how the community is going to react when you’re building a house for this family and not their family. The house that we’re building them is off one of the main roads through town, and I think every single car that goes by either honks or waves. It’s a pretty cool sight.”
Pitman is proud that his church has embraced the project for the Bennett family but insists that the Compassion Pearl River effort is more of a community-wide ministry than one church’s project as many different people from several different churches have been involved.
“My great desire once this is behind us is for our community to see, wow, that did happen, and, wow, that’s a good-looking project right there and this family really was helped — and that it truly will become a greater community project,” he said. “We’ll have more people to embrace it and to get involved in it for the next one.”
“My husband was born and raised right there on that property. To be able to have a stable home and be rooted where he has been since he was a kid, it’s almost like a dream come true.” — Danielle Bennett, Fuller Center homeowner partner
While there are high hopes for future such projects, there is nothing quite like the present joy now on display in Pearl River.
“My husband was born and raised right there on that property,” Danielle Bennett said. “To be able to have a stable home and be rooted where he has been since he was a kid, it’s almost like a dream come true. We never dreamed that it would happen.”
MORE: Listen to The Fuller Center’s interviews with those quoted for this story in the audio links below.
The Rev. Tobey Pitman, pastor, First Baptist Church of Pearl River (8:22)
Curt Schilling, deacon, Salem Reformed Church of Little Rock, Iowa (7:55)
Kathryn Walsh, Pearl River Board of Aldermen (4:38)
Danielle Bennett, Fuller Center homeowner partner in Pearl River (4:08)
Tamara Danel, Executive Director, Ginger Ford Northshore Fuller Center for Housing (1:52)