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'Miracle' Project Underway

January 24, 2007

By Rachel Leifer (Hattiesburg American)

Jan. 24, 2007--Too expensive to be renovated and too historically significant to be torn down, Pamela Bolar's West Fourth Street house in Hattiesburg, Miss., was deemed a total loss after Hurricane Katrina had done its worst.

That left the mother of two in a cramped trailer with two teenage daughters, praying - along with the local United Way chapter - for divine intervention.

"We kept that case in what I call 'the miracle pool,'" said Sheila Varnado, executive director of Recover, Restore, Rebuild Southeast Mississippi, the United Way's long-term Katrina recovery arm known as R3SM for short. "If a miracle came along, we'd pull the case out and do something with it."

Several unforeseen marvels later, what once seemed unthinkable is just a month away: Bolar and her daughters will move into a brand-new home next month.

It's the first time that R3SM, which has provided house repairs to a raft of uninsured or underinsured hurricane victims, is providing a client a house that's being built from scratch.

"Words can't express how I truly feel about this," said Bolar, who explained that serious health issues keep her from working. "It's just like a big house coming down from heaven to me."

More specifically, it came from the upper Midwest.

A church group from Orland Park Christian Reformed Church, a congregation in a Chicago suburb flush with talented professional construction workers, determined it wanted to build a new home for a hurricane victim and asked R3SM to find an appropriate client.

Bolar, whose application for aid R3SM initially had to turn down because her needs were beyond their ability to help, was at the top of the list, Varnado said.

The miracles seemed to come in quick succession after that.

Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church donated four plots of land on Duke Avenue when R3SM asked for just one; a Bobcat from Larry Johnson Construction cleared the plot over the weekend; R3SM's building partner, Carpenter's Helper, found a way to lay a foundation in the rain.

And Monday, a group of 16 from Orland Park had erected the skeleton of a three-bedroom, two-bathroom, 1,150-square-foot home before noon.

"Our purpose is to encourage people to use their gifts with a servant's heart for helping others," said Orland Park group leader Don Waterlander, his jeans caked with red mud from the construction site where his colleagues were nailing beams into a house frame with dizzying speed.

The group, affiliated with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee's Disaster Response Services, widely known as the Greenshirts, is bunking at Westminster Presbyterian Church's Wright House, he said.

Two more teams will come in successive weeks, and the project--including about $45,000 in donated building materials, heating and cooling systems, plumbing and electrical work--should be done next month.

That means Bolar and her daughters finally will get a bit of privacy.

"I can't wait," she said. "It's really something to be in such small living quarters ... it's been a big adjustment for us."

Though it's unclear whether R3SM will be able to build homes for other clients, Varnado said the Duke Avenue house, and the string of miracles that made it happen, is an achievement in itself.

For Waterlander and his group of trained builders, the work itself is compensation.

"It's just great to help people," he said.

This article first appeared in the
Hattiesburg American on January 23, 2007.