SPECIAL REPORT: Rebuilding homes & trust on a foundation of faith in North Carolina

(Photo: Aaron Ratliff presents a key to 87-year-old homeowner partner Mary J. Koonce in New Bern, N.C. She asked only for the Disaster ReBuilders to replace the tarp that had covered her roof since Hurricane Florence struck in September of 2018. Instead, they replaced her entire roof, made her bathroom more accessible and added a wheelchair ramp.)

NEW BERN, N.C. — Asked why she and husband Aaron Ratliff chose to lead the Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders’ recovery efforts in eastern North Carolina after it was battered by Hurricane Florence in 2018, Toni Ratliff simply pointed at the sky — and she was not referring to the brutal summer sun.

This is simply a matter of faith — specifically faith in action — for the couple.

Perhaps more telling about their passion for serving others is how they met and fell in love in 2016. That their paths ever crossed was not so much good luck as it was bad muck. They met while volunteering with the Cajun Army in Toni’s native Louisiana while helping families impacted by devastating floods.

Aaron and Toni Ratliff, outside a rebuilding project in Havelock, N.C.

“The first time we met was in a moldy house while wearing Tyvek suits that were muddy and nasty,” recalled Aaron, an experienced contractor who hails from Virginia.

It was mud at first sight.

There was someone else Aaron hit it off with in Louisiana — Bart Tucker, President of the Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders, who were also working to help families recover from the flooding.

“We knew we’d met a kindred soul, plus he was an experienced carpenter,” Tucker recalled. “What more to love? Then Toni started showing up with Aaron at Sunday night orientations. We quickly discovered that Toni was one of those folks who knew what needed to be done and just jumped into action to get it done.”

When the Disaster ReBuilders turned their attention to east Texas in the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, Tucker hoped he could lure Aaron to the Houston area. He knew it would be a package deal.

“By this time, we knew we couldn’t get Aaron without Toni being on board also,” he said. “Armed with the fact that Toni was a licensed practical nurse and had demonstrated an easy fit with our volunteers, we were extremely confident Toni would be great on our staff working with volunteers and homeowners. But we were asking her to leave her corporate job for our missionary wages and leave her Louisiana family of kids and grandkids. Needless to say, we were elated when she said yes.”

That is not the only thing Toni said yes to. She and Aaron were married last year. Instead of having the ceremony in one of their hometowns, they invited their family and friends to join them in Texas for the ceremony. For the Ratliffs, home is not so much where they are from but where they can best make a difference. A few months after they married, Hurricane Florence struck North Carolina, and they would soon have a new home.


On to the Tar Heel State

Hurricane Florence made landfall on Sept. 14, 2018, at Wrightsville Beach, N.C., as a Category 1 storm. There was wind damage to trees and homes, but a high pressure system blocked Florence’s path, causing the storm to stall over the state for days and dropping more than 30 inches of rain in many areas. Among them was New Bern, which got both rain and a 6-foot storm surge.

While much of the media attention focused on damage in larger towns like Wilmington, the Disaster ReBuilders identified New Bern as the best location to set up shop after Tucker and Aaron flew to Wilmington and surveyed the damage from there northward. A beautiful, historic town on the Neuse River, New Bern is situated near several smaller communities like James City, Cherry Point, Neuse Forest and Havelock, among others that had pockets of need that went under the radar.

“We look for areas that have the lower-income homeowners who meet our criteria, but also we focus on those areas that are not in the news media and are not getting the attention, and no one knows about them,” Toni said.

“With Houston, the population size is massive, so the disaster there was massive,” Aaron said. “Over here, it’s kind of spread out in pockets.”

Volunteers pray at “cStone” — officially known as Cornerstone Assembly of God.

It helped that the Disaster ReBuilders had already established connections with the Craven County Disaster Recovery Alliance and that churches stepped forward to support the work, especially Cornerstone Assembly of God, better known — even on its official signage — as “cStone”. The church’s sanctuary was flooded during Florence and was moved to their gymnasium, which is also where Fuller Center volunteers are fed and housed during their service trips to New Bern.

“Cornerstone really stepped up to the plate and they started sending homeowner referrals right away when they knew what our criteria was,” Aaron said. “You’ve got to make sure you have church partners, and that you can house and feed volunteers.”

The volunteers began streaming in this past winter, and the flow has not slowed this summer despite the North Carolina heat. Just last week, the New Bern team hosted dozens of volunteers from the Travis Manion Foundation, Erin’s Gift of Hope out of New Jersey, Rotarians from Pennsylvania and a team from Dauphin County Technical School in Harrisburg, Pa. Tucker expected nothing less than a thriving operation when he asked the Ratliffs to lead efforts in New Bern.

“There are few people as dedicated and passionate about our mission as Aaron and Toni,” Tucker said. “As a team, Toni and Aaron are perfect as the core for a Disaster ReBuilders operation. Underlying all this, we knew that Aaron and Toni loved the Lord and had a demonstrated passion for loving their neighbors in need. So it was an easy decision to ask them to set up another new operation in North Carolina after Hurricane Florence’s devastation. And they blessed us and the Florence victims by answering the call again.”


Building trust by keeping promises

Nearly every homeowner partner, though, was a little skeptical at first when the Ratliffs told them they were here to help. Some had seen work started and abandoned by contractors. Others had been taken by shysters or had heard tales of those who suffered similar fates. They knew there was only one way to gain the trust of struggling residents.

Aaron Ratliff with homeowner Norika Nakada at the Jan. 10 dedication of her repaired home.

“You’ve got to show them what you can do,” Aaron said.

And they did just that — in a hurry. Within two weeks, they completed their first project for Norika Nakada, the widow of a Marine Corps veteran whose house was damaged by a large tree that smashed through the roof of her home and the water and mold issues that followed.

Media coverage has also helped build trust, such as when New Bern’s own WCTI-TV reported on the work done for 87-year-old widow Mary J. Koonce. Having lived in her home for 42 years, she was not going to let Florence run her out despite major roof damage. She had someone simply throw a tarp over it. When it needed replacing, she asked the Disaster ReBuilders if they would give her a new tarp. They refused — for a good reason: They replaced her entire roof instead, while also adding a wheelchair ramp and making her bathroom more accessible.

“I only asked for a tarp,” Mary J. Koonce explained. “I didn’t ask for nothing else. But the good Lord opened their hearts and let them do what I needed. And I’m happy.”

Rotarians from Pennsylvania worked on the Lancaster home in New Bern last week.

Danny Lancaster said 3 feet of water flooded the New Bern home he shares with wife Lynn. Confined to a wheelchair, Lancaster struggled to get hep fixing his home before the Disaster ReBuilders stepped in.

“It was pretty rough,” Lancaster said of the storm and the months following. “I had some groups come in here and do some little things, but The Fuller Center has come into here and fixed everything. I’m very happy. Everybody’s been great. Everybody’s gone out of their way to get things done.”

Sara George’s home in Havelock suffered major roof damage during Florence, so much so that her home’s entire ceiling eventually caved in. She found it hard to believe that the Disaster ReBuilders wanted to take on the project of helping her and her three children rebuild and come home.

“I was kind of shocked and didn’t know what to think,” she said. “But Ms. Toni, she was a sweetheart. She kept telling me it wasn’t fake or anything like that.”

She believes in The Fuller Center’s ministry now and was happy to pick up pizzas last Friday to feed more than a dozen volunteers from New Jersey-based Erin’s Gift of Hope who were working on her home.

Erin’s Gift of Hope volunteers with the George family in Havelock, N.C. At far right is Eddie Sahadun. Sahadun’s family was the Disaster ReBuilders’ first partner family in the Houston area, and he now works for the group. He made a special trip to North Carolina last week to help work with the many volunteers who had come to New Bern.

“I’m overwhelmed and blessed,” she said. “They’re beautiful people. Everyone I’ve met have been sweethearts. They have been awesome.”

Aaron said that following through on promises is critical to rebuilding trust in a community.

“There’s a lot of people in volunteer organizations who have a good heart and want to help, but you should never make a promise that you can’t keep. That elevates homeowners’ hopes way up there, and they’re feeling great. But if you can’t live up to what you’ve promised, it drops them down even lower than they were. They start losing their faith in everybody.”

“It makes us feel really good when we can complete it and see the look on their face,” Toni added.


Volunteers make it possible

The trust Disaster ReBuilders have established in the community would not be possible without volunteers, who trust the Disaster ReBuilders to be good hosts and to deliver meaningful mission trip opportunities. Mike Bultemeier most certainly has faith in the group because has made three two-week volunteer trips to New Bern this year alone, and he is planning another one for November.

Jan and Mike Bultemeier, volunteers from Fort Wayne, Indiana.

“I think they’re an absolutely fantastic group to work with,” the Fort Wayne, Ind., resident said. “They take care of the dollars and don’t waste it. And it’s a Christian group, so it’s a really nice group of people to work with all the way around.”

While Mike makes use of the skills he gained as a plumber and then as an electrician with General Electric before retiring in 2001, wife Jan contributes in a more colorful way. Her quilting group at Fort Wayne’s St. Peter’s Lutheran Church provides quilts that are presented to homeowner partners at home dedications, at which a Bible is also presented. So far, the group has sent about 30 quilts for the dedications in North Carolina.

“We make quilts out of old sheets, old blankets, remnants of anything and send them to Lutheran World Relief, which sends them overseas to needy areas,” she said. “The group of ladies that I work with decided that they wanted to keep some right here.”

Peg Sennett led a Rotary trip to New Bern last week.

Peg Sennett also has made multiple trips to work with the Disaster ReBuilders, having been associated with Bart Tucker’s group since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Last week she brought a group of 18 volunteers from several Rotary Clubs in south-central Pennsylvania and eight more volunteers from Dauphin County Technical School to work in North Carolina. And they made the trip in style as one of the Rotarians, John Bailey, owner of Bailey Coach, drove the team down in one of his finest buses.

“For the last 14 years, we’ve put together disaster response teams and have worked with Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders since day one, as well as other groups,” Sennett said. “But Fuller Center is my preferred organization to work with. They’re very well-organized. The volunteer housing is very decent. And you build friendships over the course of time.”

John Martin (left) explains a task to Kendall, the 18-year-old son of homeowner partner Sara George in Havelock, N.C.

While Sennett has loads of experience working with the Disaster ReBuilders, it was a new experience for Erin’s Gift of Hope. John Martin, the construction leader for the group of mostly teenagers from New Jersey, said it was important for them to work with an organization that truly puts faith into action.

“For me, that’s all that matters,” Martin said. “You can talk all you want, but if you’re not out there doing things, your words don’t really have an effect.”

Karlee Patterson has been on several service trips with Erin’s Gift of Hope, but working with the Disaster ReBuilders might be the most tangible faith-in-action experience to date.

“It means a lot to me because we’re helping rebuild homes that were completely devastated and helping good people just get back on their feet,” Patterson said. “It’s honestly a blessing, and it’s important to my faith because we’re doing what Jesus would do. We’re loving others, but we’re actually doing it with action. There’s no greater feeling than helping others.”

Karlee Patterson paints the George home in Havelock, N.C.

There remains much work to do in the New Bern area. To that extent, Neuse Forest Presbyterian Church has offered up all of its classroom areas to be converted into more volunteer housing. The Disaster ReBuilders are leading that conversion effort, which got a huge boost last week with hard-working volunteers including Gold Star family members sent by the Travis Manion Foundation. The volunteer quarters will complement the Disaster ReBuilders’ volunteer base at cStone and be available for other nonprofits, as well.

Meanwhile, volunteers like Mike Bultemeier plan to continue coming to work in New Bern until the job is done. He said what is happening in North Carolina is clearly a God thing, and he nodded toward Aaron and Toni Ratliff nearby.

“You see miracles taking place — the right people in the right place,” he said. “God puts the right people in the right place at the right time.”


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