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Community IMPACT Series: Operation Helping Hands, July 20, 2010

By Ian McNulty

New Orleans, LA – Community IMPACT Series: Operation Helping Hands | July 20, 2010 Thousands of houses still sit empty and battered around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and behind many of them are stories of people still trying to get back home. Until very recently, New Orleans East resident Gloria Cole had one such story to tell.

"We just bought the home two months before the hurricane hit," Cole says. "And it was completely destroyed. And when we got there we had nothing, we hadn't anything, nothing at all."

She and her husband Anthony both worked at hospitals, and both lost their jobs in the tumultuous post-Katrina reordering of the local healthcare sector. They didn't have enough money to rebuild on their own, and government recovery programs weren't enough.

"We went through Road Home but they didn't give us enough to rebuild our home," says Cole. "So that's when Catholic Charities stepped in. They helped us rebuild our home from there. Because without Catholic Charities I still wouldn't be home."

The Coles received assistance through Operation Helping Hands, a program launched by Catholic Charities just months after the storm. Operation Helping Hands started as a volunteer initiative to gut flood-damaged homes. But program coordinator Debbie Koehler says it soon grew into something more.

"After we had gutted nearly 2,000 homes and apartments we realized that gutting wasn't enough," says Koehler. "I mean gutting just cleaned out all of the Katrina mess. It didn't get them back home. Back to their neighborhood, and that's what we really were trying to do. So in July of 2007 we started the rebuilding program."

In the three years since, volunteers from around the world have rebuilt 135 homes through Operation Helping Hands, which turns them over to their owners in move-in condition. Further, the volunteers have repainted the exteriors of some 350 homes. Homeowners need not be Catholic to receive this assistance, and Operation Helping Hands has served a broad range of local residents.

"We're almost five years out now," says Koehler. "I guess all of the easy cases, if you will, the people who could go ahead and rebuild and have enough money and everything, I think a lot of those people probably have and now it's people that live out of town, that have sickness, that have other issues, that have family issues, so it's a little bit more difficult now but the need is still there."

For the Coles, financial issues were not the only hardship. After Katrina, Anthony was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease. He recently died, at age 51. But Gloria says her husband took enormous comfort in his final year of life by watching volunteers from Operation Helping Hands rebuild their home, where she now lives.

"It made him so happy just to pass and see Catholic Charities working on the home. They always embraced him when he came, and when they saw that he was getting sicker they even took the days they were supposed to be off and they were working on our home just for Anthony to get in our home before he passed, because we knew he was passing, we knew it was just a matter of time," says Cole. "Well Anthony lost his speech but we all knew what his response was from that big old smile he always had on his face when he went to the home. So I know he's still smiling in heaven. He's smiling now."

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