Community action workers distributed $50 gift cards to 450 Hurricane Katrina evacuees Friday, thanks to federal funds and the unexpected generosity of Longview residents.
Sebina Johns, Gregg County case manager for the Greater East Texas Community Action Program, said she became concerned when she saw the crowd of evacuees who had come Friday morning to the First United Methodist Church of Longview to receive Wal-Mart gift cards. Johns said the number of evacuees appeared to exceed the 140 gift cards that had been purchased with $7,000 in Community Service Block Grant funds distributed to local community action agencies.
Johns said she mentioned that more money would be needed to provide everyone with gift cards, and before long, donations started rolling in, said the Rev. Jerry Turner, associate pastor of the First United Methodist Church.
Turner said a group of church members were talking, when one questioned whether more money was needed.
"It was a matter of one telephone call, and it snowballed from there," Turner said.
He said the $15,500 in additional money came from members of First United Methodist Church and First Baptist Church.
"The outpouring of love was unbelievable," Johns said. "I'm overwhelmed by the generosity of this community. The people of Louisiana are overwhelmed. They're not used to that."
The first evacuees to receive gift cards were O.F. and Jane Dier, and their daughter, Tina Boteler.
Dier said he didn't know how he would spend his $50. His wife said she would probably spend her money on clothes. A few minutes later, Dier said he probably would use his money to pay for gasoline. He said they plan to return to their Slidell, La., home Sunday or Monday.
"We don't really know how to spend the money because everything is being taken care of here," Boteler said.
"Everybody is so nice here, I don't want to go home," the father said.
"We're very fortunate to be in this shelter," the wife said of their accommodations at Maude Cobb Convention and Activity Center. "It's amazing, the generosity, the kindness."
"This town pulls together," Boteler said.
"I've never seen anything like this in my life," said the Dier's son, Keith of St. Bernard Parish, La.
Later, when describing the generosity of a Henderson man, the son stopped, fighting back tears.
The father explained that the man, later identified as Jerry L. Hays, had offered a home to his son, his wife and their three teenage children.
Hays later confirmed that he offered the Dier family a doublewide mobile home rent-and utility-free for "whatever time they need." He said the doublewide is a guest house in the back yard of his home in the Bethel Community south of Henderson.
Hays said he went to Maude Cobb Convention and Activity Center seeking "someone reasonable and compatible for the house." He met the parents, who told him about their son and family.
"I met them yesterday (Thursday) afternoon, found them to be acceptable as close neighbors and someone I wanted to help," Hays said. "I'm just thankful I am in a position to help them."
While most of the needs of evacuees are being met, some items are still needed.
State Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, issued an e-mail alert shortly before 1 p.m. Friday listing items needed at shelters in Longview and Marshall.
Air mattresses were in short supply at the Marshall Civic Center and Maude Cobb Convention and Activity Center in Longview. Maude Cobb also was lacking sheets, pillows, pillow cases, and men's and women's underwear in all sizes.
Meanwhile, others from the area are on their way to Louisiana to help.
Major Robert Winters, executive director of the Salvation Army of Longview, was on the road Friday, heading for the organization's field headquarters in Baton Rouge, La. The local chapter's mobile feeding unit – capable of producing 5,000 meals per day – was bound for an evacuee shelter in Lufkin, he added.
"We still don't know the size of this," Winters said over his cell phone. Winters has worked with relief efforts after Hurricane Andrew and other disasters in Texas for the past 20 years and said he won't be able to gauge Katrina's destruction until he's on the scene. "I know that I will go and do a very small part of a big job."
I am proud of the support our town is giving to these people. I have no doubt that there are alot of refugees causing problems, but the people here seem to be honest hardworking poeple who had a tragic thing happen to them.
I am heading to WalMart to buy air mattresses and underwear.
If you have local shelter........go give a hand. You will be glad you did.
This will never appear on CNN.
We fully expect the majority of people in a local shelter to resettle here where I'm at. As a matter of fact, one of the local industries that recently opened up for business has declared that Louisiana workers have priority to hire first. It may sound like they are turning their backs on local worker's, but the "Now Hiring" signs have been up for the last 2-months and the local guys would rather kick back and smoke up the meth than hire on.
Wow, I just got back from the local shelter. I am shocked at the number of volunteers and the mountain of things that have been donated locally.