As exciting as the construction work at blitz and Legacy Builds can be, lunch breaks and dinner time are just as loved. And those meals have perhaps never been so appreciated as they were at this past October’s Legacy Build in Minden, La., which came with a little Cajun and Louisiana flair from Steve Watkins’ Good Eats Market and Cafe.
Of course, it wasn’t his first experience with a Fuller Center for Housing blitz build. He was hired by then-Vice President of U.S. Field Operations Glen Barton to cater the “Millard and Linda Fuller Blitz Build” in Shreveport, La., the first-ever Fuller Center blitz in September of 2006.
“He came in as a caterer based on his experience serving thousands for the Red Cross after Hurricane Katrina, but he left a friend,” recalled Brenda Barton, the Fuller Center’s communications liaison for U.S. Programs and the widow of Glen Barton, who died in August of last year. “He not only gave us great value and good food for the blitz, but he and his staff bonded with so many of the volunteers. And he became a partner in our mission.”
But few who nourished their tired bodies on Watkins’ delicious meals knew that the smiling man running the grill and helping to serve the legions of volunteers had just a few years earlier been dealt one of the most crushing blows life can deliver: the tragic death of a child.
It happened just a month after that very first Fuller Center blitz build.
Katy Watkins was 16 years old, a popular junior at Airline High School in Bossier City, La., and a very active member of Bossier City’s Asbury United Methodist Church. On Oct. 20, 2006, she was in a Chevy Tahoe with four friends when it left the roadway going 70 miles per hour while passing a tractor-trailer. Watkins and friends Emily Perdue, 16, and Molly Reed, 15, were killed. Megan Atwood and Erin Semenco, survived the crash.
A beautiful statue of an angel now sits in a garden at Airline High School, inscribed with the names of the three girls who died and the words “Angels who received their wings, October 20, 2006.” Asbury United Methodist Church and The Fuller Center for Housing of Northwest Louisiana will pay tribute in another way this Saturday: by building a home in Bossier City for a couple who clawed their way out of homelessness.
It’s the culmination of something Asbury Programs Director Angela Pfanner said came up during Katy’s memorial service. The Rev. Leslie Stephens, who is now in Baton Rouge but will be at Saturday’s opening dedication for the Katy Build, mentioned that one of the things Katy loved to see people do was build a house.
They’ll do just that on Saturday, starting at 7:30 a.m. in Bossier City, as more than 50 volunteers will be on hand to begin work on the home. Fuller Center of Northwest Louisiana Executive Director Lee Jeter said the church is setting an example for other churches and religious groups who want to put their faith into action.
“This church is doing everything in this event,” Jeter said. “And when I say everything, they have rallied all of the volunteers. Everybody who’s going to be there Saturday is from Asbury United Methodist Church. We have not solicited any other volunteers for the first part of this project. All of the volunteers are coming from within the church family. They’re bringing the volunteers. They’re bringing the food. And they’re doing what we’d like to see a lot of other churches do: They went out and raised all of the money for the project and went out and got sponsors and donors to donate materials and supplies.”
Pfanner said the only problem they will have Saturday at the build is the kind of problem others would wish to have in this situation — an overabundance of volunteers.
“It’s been an overwhelming response,” she said. “I honestly don’t know what we’re going to do with all the volunteers that we have signed up for Saturday. We also have more than 18 different sponsors through in-kind donations or cash donations.”
Among those who will be on hand Saturday are Katy’s parents, Robyn and Steve Watkins, and her brother, Andy, who made the Dean’s List at Louisiana State University’s Honors College as a freshman this year. Her sister, Emily, though, cannot make it Saturday. The LSU Honors College junior who carries a 4.0 GPA will be busy serving others overseas on a mission trip. Emily also is the head of Volunteer LSU. Katy’s legacy of service is clearly carried on by her family.
And, yes, Steve Watkins will do one of the things he does best on Saturday — filling the stomachs of those who have filled his family’s hearts with love since the tragedy.
“Glen and I became friends with Steve and his extended family, and we shared in the tragic loss of his daughter,” Barton said. “He has always been there when we were in need of having someone we could count on for providing support at many blitzes. But, more importantly, it has been his caring and servant attitude that has been so important to those of us at The Fuller Center who have come to know him.”
KATY WATKINS WAS ‘WAY BEYOND HER YOUNG YEARS’
As the church’s youth director at the time, Pfanner was among the many hit hard by Katy’s death. She saw her blossom from a shy middle-schooler into a dedicated and passionate servant of others.
“She quickly became very committed and very involved and was here at the church every time we had an event or activity, but particularly when we were involved with mission work,” Pfanner said. “Anytime that we had a mission trip or function here in town, she was always one of the first ones to sign up. This became a home away from home. She just threw herself into being involved, and particularly involved with helping others. She was kind of like my little shadow from when she was a seventh-grader until her junior year. We were very involved and close.
“She was what you might call an old soul,” Pfanner added. “She was kind of way beyond her young years. So she spent a lot of time with folks she wanted to learn from and be involved with. So we spent a lot of time together. We’d roll in when it was time for youth groups, and she would be there sitting in the office. She would come in there and check on me and see what she could sign up for and what she could do next.”
Jeter is inspired by the way the church has rallied around the build and believes it is a perfect tribute to Katy.
“The reason that Asbury decided to do this as the Katy Build is that she was very, very mission-oriented,” he said. “Because of her dedication to helping others and serving others, they felt this was a great way to honor her legacy and to continue the legacy of the church of doing outreach in the local community because that’s what Katy’s life was focused on — helping others.”
Katy would be particularly pleased with the couple to whom the Katy Build house will go, Charles and Vernita Brown, who also will be working at Saturday’s build. Both were once homeless but have had a stable family life for five years and are both employed in the Shreveport/Bossier area. Charles, who was a homeless veteran, now volunteers at the very shelter that helped him during his darkest days.
“They’ve been overwhelmed and humbled as you can imagine,” Pfanner said of the Browns. “He’s a religious man, but he told me on Sunday that this is probably the first time in his life that he just sees the fingerprint of God all over this. He’s just never seen people come together like this for a house.”
But he has seen his share of houses. He has a construction background, and he became a Fuller Center volunteer before he became a potential homeowner partner.
“He heard Lee speak at some event that they were at,” Pfanner said. “He just thought a lot of the organization and had some construction background from his past and decided to start volunteering. He volunteers at a shelter that provides meals for the homeless, a place he actually went to every day. He goes to that as a symbol of hope for those who are there that are homeless because he once was there. So that’s part of his sweat equity that he has been earning toward this home build.”
BUILDING ON THE SUCCESS OF ALLENDALE
Allendale is the Shreveport neighborhood where The Fuller Center began building its first houses in 2005 after founder Millard Fuller responded to a plea for help from those who were dealing with an influx of people who fled the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. Since then, 43 new homes have been built in the once drug-infested, crime-ridden Allendale community. Since 2005, crime has dropped 80 percent in the neighborhood, and children now play on the sidewalks and in the yards of beautiful new homes.
The 44th Fuller Center home in the area was constructed in the Cedar Grove community, FCH Northwest Louisiana’s first outside the Allendale community. The Katy Build will be the 45th new home, and the first in Bossier City, a community Jeter had long sought to help. But he needed the right connection. Asbury United Methodist Church turned out to be the right one.
“Lee had been trying to get over here for about three years, and I didn’t know any of this,” Pfanner recalled. “He told me the struggles he was having just trying to get his foot in the door in Bossier. So when we talked about partnering with him, there wasn’t any property. We didn’t have anything. We just had a vision. Then the property wound up falling in our lap through a donation from Volunteers of America. All these things are connected under the name of one girl. It has been quite an experience.”
And Pfanner is thankful for the partnership and the many people who will benefit because of it.
“I knew when Lee and I started having conversations last October that there would be a connection as far as the church,” she said. “But I also knew that I wouldn’t commit Asbury to something that I didn’t feel would be very positive for us in the community and also for Fuller. We wanted a true partnership where we were working side by side with Lee and The Fuller Center.
“When I made the phone call and told him the story, I told him that this was something from five and a half years ago and we couldn’t shake it,” she added. “We’d been trying to run from it in one way because it was an overwhelming thought and task but knew it would be something that would be great to do if we ever got this far with it. He just took the ball and helped me run with it. So here we are.”
“She brought that seed to us, and when she brought that seed to us, we did not have any property in Bossier City,” Jeter said. “But God has provided everything we needed along the way. It started out just like a mustard seed that was planted and has blossomed.”
In fact, it’s been such a success that the Katy Build has an unofficial new name, Katy Build 1. The lot is big enough for two homes, and because of the support generated for this build, there will be a Katy Build 2 when this one is done, Pfanner said.
But Jeter stressed that even as the mission in Northwest Louisiana moves forward, it won’t do so at the expense of the remarkable continuing success story in Allendale.
“Millard made a statement when he was here in 2005 that there are substandard properties all over this city. And that statement’s as true today as it was in 2005,” Jeter said. “We need to address some of those issues. But we’re not going to address them in a vacuum. We’re going to address them with the other agencies in the community. We don’t want to just build houses. We want to change lives, and we want to change communities.
“We love what we’re doing in Allendale, and Millard made a commitment to Allendale of 60 houses — and we’re going to fulfill that commitment and go beyond that commitment,” he added. “But the opportunity has come for us to service other communities like Cedar Grover and like Bossier City. And if the opportunity presents itself in a community where there are sponsors and supporters that want to see us build in those communities, then we’re going to go into those communities and build.”
All Jeter needs to do that is a few more involved churches — and a lot more people like Katy Watkins.
This October 2011 video offers a glimpse of the changes in the Allendale community: