April 2006 –In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a phone call and $10,000 worth of bottled water began what is now known as HANDS – a five-month-old, faith-based disaster relief organization. HANDS is an acronym for Helping Americans Needing Disaster Support.
“But it’s truly symbolic of being the hands of Christ, …” said Leisha Pickering, founder and presiding director. “The imagery of hands is so beautiful because hands do a lot of things,” from serving a meal to loading a truck.
The formation of the organization, which has already provided more than $50 million in aid to hurricane victims, was an immediate reaction rather than a planned response.
“It was the day after the hurricane,” explained Pickering, the wife of U. S. Congressman Chip Pickering (R-MS). “I got a call. When the phone rang, we were all shocked because … our phone lines were out.”
This was the only time in three days that the Pickerings’ phone rang as they sat in their Jackson, Mississippi, home without electricity following Hurricane Katrina.
“I ran and picked the phone up,” Pickering said, “and it was my friend Caroline Aderholt,” an Alabama congressman’s wife.
Aderholt was calling to check on the Pickering family and make sure they were safe following the August storm that wreaked havoc on New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, about 200 miles south of Jackson.
“I told her that we were safe … but so many people needed so much help,” Pickering said.
“Leisha, the nation wants to help. The churches want to help. Tell me what you need,” Aderholt replied.
Unsure of the immediate needs and having only seen images of the destruction on a small TV powered by a generator, Pickering thought she remembered hearing a request for water.
“I’ll get you water,” Aderholt replied. “My church is collecting supplies also. Just give me a little while, and I’ll figure out how to get you water.”
Being a person of normal financial means, Aderholt went to the bank and borrowed $10,000 to purchase water. She secured an 18-wheeler to haul it, and within six hours, it arrived in Mississippi where Pickering became its prime distributor.
“I went down to the [Jackson] coliseum because I knew they had 2,000 [evacuated] people staying there,” Pickering said.
Her attempt to secure delivery and distribution of the water was unsuccesful.
“They told me they couldn’t take it,” she said. “They … didn’t have a way to distribute it…receive it or store it.”
Grasping for relief
The mother of five children ages 7 to 16, Pickering co-manages an event planning business based in Washington, D.C. She didn’t need another responsibility. Yet, knowing two more truckloads of supplies were on the way, Pickering was determined to find a place where the water and supplies could be delivered, sorted and repackaged for distribution.
She contacted a friend who attends Christ United Methodist Church located in the center of Jackson. The church agreed to be a receiving hub for the supply trucks.
“We had about 10 volunteers, and we just said … we’re going to receive these trucks and try to find where the supplies need to go,” Pickering explained.
Then she decided to appeal to the masses by appearing on TV and asking for more supplies and volunteers.
“When I did that, the response was overwhelming,” Pickering said. “We went from 10 volunteers on the first day to 500 in two days, at any one time.”
It was as if the effort was organizing itself, although it was obvious God had been orchestrating it from the very beginning.
Within a week, the newly formed distribution center outgrew its first location and was moved to an empty Winn-Dixie grocery store down the street. The abandoned store was tied up in bankruptcy litigation, so using it as a distribution center didn’t seem plausible.
But Pickering was determined.
“So we made a couple of phone calls,” she said, “and it ended up that the national president of Winn-Dixie called and said … you can move in for $10 rent.”
They did and remained there for two months until Pickering received another phone call – this time from some generous men who wanted to join the work.
“They saw it as a great thing the community could be a part of, … and they said they wanted to buy us a building so that we could continue the effort,” Pickering said.
So they gladly moved once again to what is now their permanent location at 863 Centre Street in Ridgeland, Mississippi. What used to be a lighting gallery is now a nationally supplied distribution center and warehouse for HANDS.
Although there is work to be done on the building’s layout and décor, that doesn’t keep the organization from working full force to continue meeting the needs of hurricane victims on a daily basis.
In the beginning, HANDS was distributing supplies on a non-stop basis. They were sending out 75 truckloads to every one truckload of supplies sent out by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“We’re certainly not in that mode [anymore],” Pickering said, although the needs are still great.
“Right now … it [Hurricane Katrina] is kind of old news, but it’s not old news to people on the Coast,” Pickering explained. “They are just still trying to figure out what they are going to do.
“It takes a lifetime to build your life,” she added, “and in one morning it was all destroyed. We recognize the need for long-term disaster relief” – which is why HANDS instituted its Family Connection Program.
Reaching for relationships
The project is a partnership program in which HANDS is asking churches, charities, foundations, corporations and Sunday School classes to “adopt” a family.
“We’re asking [them] to take one family and commit for one year to develop a friendship and to love and care for them and to help them heal emotionally and … spiritually and in that … meet some of their physical needs,” Pickering explained.
HANDS workers traveled to the Coast and collected personal information for approximately 1,500 families. Letters and phone calls are received daily from families needing assistance, so HANDS is encouraging groups, specifically churches, to be creative in responding to families.
“When there is a tragedy or a disaster in people’s lives, they typically turn to their family, their neighbors, their place of employment, their church or their local school,” Pickering explained. “When Katrina hit, it affected all of these. So essentially, everybody’s support unit has been torn out.
“We’re trying to create a support network outside of the immediate places you look,” Pickering said. “What an example for us to really be … salt and light and to really love and care for these folks.
“What could be more meaningful to these families than to have people who don’t know them at all care and love them because of Christ?” she added.
“There are so many churches across the country that want to help but just don’t know what to do,” Pickering explained. “So we’re saying call us, and … we will give you a family and let you be creative and love and care for them.”
“It’s taken a lot more than we thought to get people involved in sponsoring these families,” admitted Rebecca Pierce, HANDS executive assistant who helps coordinate the Family Connection Program. “To me, it seems like a very simple thought. You have one family, and you have one church or business, and you match the two together.
“To me that seems so practical and so easy to do, but it hasn’t proven to be that simple,” she added.
Ann Pierce, technology coordinator for HANDS, agrees,“It’s a program that can work. … And it’s a great way to … do what God called us to do which is to help the least among us.”
The sisters agree that the hardest part of their jobs is telling people in need that they will have to wait until a church or other organization commits to partner with them – which validates Pickering’s sense of urgency in appealing to the nation and its churches.
But don’t get her wrong. The overall response to relief efforts has been overwhelming and greatly appreciated.
“To me it was the most beautiful thing because it’s how the church really should be,” she explained. “It was everybody coming together. There were no walls. It was old. It was young. It was black. It was white. It was Republican. It was Democrat. It was Catholic, Methodist, Episcopal. It was everybody just coming together to help.”
After all, she added, “This is not just about one person. It’s so not about me. We are just really a result of people’s love and generosity.”
The generosity, prompted by the Holy Spirit, has allowed HANDS to host various relief drives while making available fully-equipped work trailers, a mobile kitchen unit, and mobile clothing units.
Each work trailer contains $15,000 worth of tools complete with sleeping bags, tents and generators. Nissan recently donated a three-quarter-ton truck to help haul the trailers to and from the Coast.
The mobile kitchen unit contains a refrigerator, freezer, convection oven, Viking range and generator for groups to use for feeding their volunteers.
The mobile clothing project was designed to supply hurricane victims with brand new clothes free of charge. HANDS only accepts new clothing which they receive from name-brand clothing distributors such as The Rogue, The Limited, Ann Taylor Loft and Nike, among others. The purpose of distributing only new clothing is to help the affected people restore their dignity as they rebuild their lives.
Companies found out about this and began responding. As a result, HANDS now has a warehouse full of new clothes that are sorted, hung on racks and driven to the Coast where victims are given the opportunity to “shop” for what they need.
“We also work with the local schools getting sizes from parents for their children, and we box up two outfits apiece [complete] with a coat and a brand new pair of tennis shoes,” Pickering explained.
While these are ongoing projects made available through gifts and donations, since HANDS is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, there is still a need for people to answer the call to be the hands and feet of Jesus.
“But now is the hard work,” Pickering admitted while referring to a quote she once heard. “I don’t even know who said it or where it came from, but it [goes like this], ‘Every movement has its galvanic moment when the world takes notice, and then comes the hard part – sustaining the effort long enough to make a real difference.’
“I really believe when the hurricane hit it was a galvanic moment,” she explained. “Everybody wanted to help. Now’s the hard part – sustaining it long enough to really make a difference in the lives of these people.”
8 D A Y S O F H O P E – Opportunity for hands-on work on Gulf Coast By Randall Murphree
The Body of Christ continues to find creative and practical ways to minister to victims of last fall’s devastating Gulf Coast hurricanes. 8 Days of Hope (AFA Journal, 2/06) is one example of how countless thousands of Christians have responded with personal commitment and sacrifice to demonstrate the love of Christ both to fellow believers and to others as well.
Last December, Steve Tybor III of Tupelo, Mississippi, and Steve Tybor Jr. of Buffalo, New York, coordinated a massive effort involving 693 volunteers from 37 states who traveled to the Mississippi Coast to help repair homes damaged in the storms.
“It went great,” said Tybor III. “We were excited with what we were able to do, with God’s grace. But you always learn a lot!”
Because they learned a lot, the father-son duo believe they will be able to be even more effective with a second project May 28-June 3. Initially, it was intended to be a low-key one-time thing with the Tybors recruiting a few friends to go down and work on a few houses. Clearly, God had greater plans.
“We’re already getting volunteers signed up for May,” Tybor said. “We have 30 Kent State University students signed up and 38 roofers from Michigan!” In this second phase of 8 Days of Hope, they urge volunteers to plan minimum three-day stays on the coast. “The one-day and two-day volunteer plan didn’t work out well logistically,” said Tybor.
Tybor encourages volunteers to learn more and enlist at www.8daysofhope.com.