Backstory: Post-Katrina charity starts with a home

Eighteen candles will adorn the birthday cake, but Glenn Locklin won't be there to see his oldest daughter make a wish. Instead, he'll be standing on a muddy patch of land 500 miles away, making dreams come true for another family, rebuilding hurricane-ravaged lives while putting his own life on hold. With great love comes great sacrifice – one he's made without question. His wife and daughters make their own sacrifice. And so it goes for families all over the country, separated not by Katrina's wrath, but by the compassion that grew in her wake.

Mr. Locklin, a burly, soft-spoken contractor from Tennessee and project manager for the charity organization One House at a Time, has been in Pearlington, Miss., since January 2006, leaving his wife, three teenage girls, and a thriving business to fulfill what he says is his Christian duty: rebuilding homes in the rural town, population 1,684 before the storm, hovering around half that now. No tax base remains, just 200 square miles of blacktop snaking through wooded scrubland bejeweled with Spanish moss. Many residents are elderly. Nearly a third are disabled. Strong hands like Locklin's have been vital to recovery. He works seven days a week, 10 hours a day. Every two months, he goes home for a visit. No matter how hard it gets, he returns.

He's not alone. State officials estimate as many as 500,000 people have come to provide hands-on assistance since Katrina. The federal government has provided relief money – some $26 billion to Mississippi alone – but it's the hearts and hands of everyday people that are putting storm-torn lives back together.

Kris Locklin, Glenn's wife, says the family is committed to the cause, even more so after spending Thanksgiving here and seeing the devastation – and progress – firsthand. Still, it's hard. Discipline and grade problems have surfaced at home. Their middle daughter is transitioning from home schooling to her freshman year in public high school. Their 12-year-old is struggling emotionally. As for Mrs. Locklin, she's given up a lot of things she used to enjoy because there's not enough time. Always fiercely independent, she's become more so, learning to repair the lawn mower and toilet. The family goes on, which is both reassuring and painful.

"He comes home and feels like he doesn't belong here because we've developed our own system without him," she says. "He goes back down there and feels like he doesn't belong because he doesn't. I listen to him cry on the phone, and I can't comfort him. Those are the hardest times."

And yet he says he has no choice but to be here. "When I got down here, it changed everything," he says. "It got personal. I know these families. I know the circumstances. I know the pain. The main goal is to get them back in their homes."

So far, his group – a charity run by the Hope Center Fellowship church in Hendersonville, Tenn. – has completed 16 houses. They are humble, 1,200-square-foot cottages that can be constructed from the ground up in less than a month. It takes about 60 volunteers and $30,000 to complete one house. At the moment, Locklin has the hands but lacks the funds. He trades and borrows materials from other volunteer groups – some 45 relief organizations in a local coalition that share resources and information. While Locklin waits for donations to trickle in, he renovates houses that were damaged and finishes projects on houses they've already built.

The experience has changed him. "I used to always want – go to Wal-Mart and buy stupid things," he says. "It's taught me how to live better, but it's also very satisfying to help people."

***

It's the middle of nowhere and the hour is nothing, a sliver of time dutifully noted by the alarm clock's efficient blue glow. It's surprisingly cold here in Pearlington, and the volunteers burrow more deeply into their bunks, grateful for the woolen blankets that stave off the chill. In the darkness, shadows rise and fall, punctuated by soft groans as worn bedsprings do what they can to help tired shoulders. This isn't the Four Seasons, but as far as volunteer camps go, this wooden bunkhouse is luxury accommodations, a home away from home.

The scrape of clay-caked Timberlands on the bunkhouse floor announces the latest arrivals – a father-son team from Dansville, N.Y., here to spend a week building houses with Locklin's group. Next week, fresh volunteers will arrive, some armed with little more than goodwill.

The relief groups have made a difference. Jim Nelson, Mississippi's assistant secretary of state for business regulation and enforcement, says in many cases nonprofits have trumped bureaucracy in speed and efficiency. "In the early days after the hurricane, the federal government was disorganized," says Mr. Nelson, whose office oversees every charity registered in the state – including 94 different Katrina groups. "The charitable groups were able to get into the coast more quickly and hit the ground running."

Partly it's a matter of roles. The federal government provided long-range funding as the state government focused on economic redevelopment, but nonprofits excelled in providing immediate needs such as food, water, clothing, and shelter. While trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency sat idle, regulations preventing their use until lots were cleared and utilities restored, volunteers stood beneath a sweltering Mississippi sun, cutting swaths through fetid underbrush and swarms of mosquitoes to get the job done.

"Charities and the work they have done and continue to do ... are so significant that it's difficult to find words or measurement," says Bryan McDonald, head of the governor's Office of Recovery and Renewal.

***

Dawn comes early, a haze of hot coffee tempering the shock of frigid outdoor toilets. One by one, the volunteers gather around a campfire to pray and discuss the day ahead. Three projects are under way: an addition to provide an elderly couple with more living space, electrical work on a nearly completed house, and joining two houses together for a seven-generation family. In addition, Locklin is working on a personal project: renovating Tim and Jackie Blackwell's four-bedroom brick home.

Mr. Blackwell, an ROTC teacher at the local high school, admits he was hesitant to accept Locklin's help. Insurance paid off his mortgage but left him with studs and a concrete slab. Still, he felt more fortunate than his neighbors. He was at least physically able to rebuild. Silently, he trudged to his classroom each day, working on his house in the evenings. One thing became apparent: He was in over his head. "I liked to piddle in the workshop, but I'd never done anything of this magnitude," Blackwell says. "When I looked at it, I knew it wasn't right, but I didn't know how to fix it. Glenn pretty much took the hammer away and said, 'You're dangerous with this.' "

He laughs, but becomes serious when he remembers the days of being alone, struggling with thoughts of suicide. He believes the volunteers have done more than just build houses – they've saved lives. Alan Rudisill, a maintenance manager from North Carolina, echoes other volunteers when he says it's a simple matter of doing the right thing. "This community needs help, and the Lord has blessed me to come be a part of it," he says. "I wish I could do more."

Here, as it is all along the Gulf Coast these days, progress is distilled into tangibles and intangibles: A board that fits. A roof that's finished. A word that comforts. A hand that helps.

At the end of the day, as the sun sinks low in the Southern sky, it means everything.

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