Margie Legowski and Jennifer Feltner initially got involved in relief for Hurricane Katrina through Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., which partnered with St. Rose de Lima Catholic Church in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi after the storm. Holy Trinity made a three year commitment to St. Rose in 2005 to help them with their efforts in Bay St. Louis, as well as send volunteers of their own.
Legowski was a former Peace Corps volunteer, who had volunteered in Sri Lanka the year prior to Katrina. “I didn’t necessarily have the right skills for that, like knowledge of the language for example,” said Legowski. “Katrina sounded like something I could really do, and they needed volunteers on site in Mississippi, so I went down.”
Feltner served as an AmeriCorps VISTA in 2006 and 2007 after initially getting involved in Holy Trinity’s work. “I had recently recovered from an eating disorder right before Katrina, and I had wonderful friends who helped me,” said Feltner. “I wanted to do something to help other people and not just focus on my own problems.”
The two worked very hard to set up St. Rose’s Outreach and Recovery operations. “This parish had kind of become a little distribution point, by default,” said Legowski, who was part of the committee that coordinated and prepared volunteers. “I acted as a liaison, sending individuals and small groups to different sites, and just tried to help send people somewhere that needs help.”
Coordinating these efforts was no easy task, however, as the communication in the Gulf Coast was a big issue for organizations. “It was very, very challenging, because when I first went down there, there were no systems, no databases, no protocols,” said Feltner. “There was no organized way to do this and make sure high quality work was being done. I spent a lot of time trying to develop all the systems to try to create a well-oiled machine.”
After Hurricane Rita and other storms hit Texas and other parts of Louisiana, other churches drew on their experiences with St. Rose de Lima when responding to their own disasters. “The commission and the state office were aware of this little oasis in the disaster area,” said Legowski. “It was wonderful to see AmeriCorps, AmeriCorps NCCC, and AmeriCorps VISTA come down there.”
When they left Mississippi, the difference their work made was visible alongside the work of other organizations. “It started to look like a community again instead of a disaster zone,” said Feltner, who has visited every year since her term of service ended. “It looks more normal structurally.”
Legowski took an early retirement to continue to serve, and has been spending a lot of time doing so in El Salvador. Feltner is a Wildlife Biology PhD student at North Carolina State University, and is planning a trip down to Bay St. Louis for the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
“It’s great to see all the changes that have taken place since we’ve left,” said Feltner. “But I think all of us volunteers were changed just as much.”