Monday, August 23, 2010
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Some Roanokers found light amid chaos and destruction of Hurricane Katrina

Helping people after the storm gave some volunteers a renewed sense of optimism about humankind.

Logan Schalk talks with a customer at Smokey Bones near Valley View Mall on Friday. Schalk came to Roanoke after marrying a woman he met while volunteering in Mississippi. He said he went down to help rebuild, but was quickly appalled by the quality of food the flood victims were getting.

STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS The Roanoke Times

Logan Schalk talks with a customer at Smokey Bones near Valley View Mall on Friday. Schalk came to Roanoke after marrying a woman he met while volunteering in Mississippi. He said he went down to help rebuild, but was quickly appalled by the quality of food the flood victims were getting.

Logan Schalk, 31, a Smokey Bones manager, moved to Roanoke in 2008 after meeting and later marrying a volunteer he met while using his professional chef skills to help out with his church in Mississippi during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS The Roanoke Times

Logan Schalk, 31, a Smokey Bones manager, moved to Roanoke in 2008 after meeting and later marrying a volunteer he met while using his professional chef skills to help out with his church in Mississippi during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

There was the cancer patient who on a lark gathered some friends and drove to Mississippi to hand out water and food.

And the retired Roanoke judge who had hardly swung a hammer before in her life, but went to rebuild hurricane-ravaged homes.

And the Los Angeles chef who left a beachfront condominium to live in a tent for eight months and serve five-star food to hurricane victims, and ended up living in Roanoke.

Hurricane Katrina, which uncoiled its horrible wrath along the Gulf Coast five years ago this week, has many legacies, most of them dark.

But for those who left the comfort of their lives, however briefly, to give aid to Katrina's victims, the disaster has largely left a brighter residue.

While trying to restore the lives of those on the Gulf Coast, they found their faith in humankind restored.

They found the desire to help, instead of watch.

They found strength in themselves they didn't know they had.

One even found a wife.

Instant nonprofit

In August 2005, Lorette Lemond had "full-blown" kidney cancer and was waiting for her first disability check.

For all her personal woe, it was the sad state of the people she saw on TV in Louisiana and Mississippi that worried her. The former restaurant manager from Roanoke gathered some friends, rented some vans, and parked them in front of a Kroger store in Vinton one morning about five days after the storm. By 6 p.m., the vans were full, they had $2,000 in donations for gas, and they were on their way.

In Gulfport, Miss., the wreckage was stunning.

"Devastation and dead animals and refrigerators on the highway," recalled Lemond, 53.

Lemond and her volunteers found not only people in need of food and fresh water, but lost souls who had no place to go.

Lemond invited them to Roanoke. Thirteen came. Hotel Roanoke put them up for a week while volunteers located more permanent housing and jobs.

Not all of them proved appreciative. One, "J.C.," was arrested within a week, Lemond said. One mother fled Roanoke and her family because she was charged with child abuse.

"We weren't picking the cream of the crop up," Lemond said. "We were picking up society's left-behinds."

Others stayed in Roanoke for a while but moved on. And a few are still here, living and working and doing better than they were before the hurricane, Lemond said.

Lemond registered her group, Let It Begin With Me, with the IRS and earned tax-exempt status. The group helped 300 victims complete their claims paperwork for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, she said.

They also connected with a furnituremaker in Ohio willing to donate mismatched furniture to the cause, and Lemond led six more trips to the Gulf Coast to deliver the furniture to clients identified by an agency in New Orleans.

"I changed," Lemond said. "It was for the better in my soul. I'm a lot more active."

She had a kidney removed a few years ago, and ramped down the nonprofit's efforts, but the organization continues to aid the needy. She picks up donated household and hygiene products from Target and delivers them to the Roanoke Rescue Mission, and packs up Red Cross care packages for fire and disaster victims.

"I did learn to have more confidence in myself," she said. "I went from watching TV and saying, 'Those poor people,' to running a nonprofit in three months."

And she still hears from those she helps.

"I could be having a bummed-out day and get a call from one of those folks, and it just cheers me right up."

Hammer, not gavel

Former Roanoke Circuit Court Judge Diane Strickland was watching those images on television, too, wondering what she could do.

When she and some friends learned of a FEMA plan to relocate hurricane victims to Virginia, she led an interfaith effort to unite church congregations to help resettle as many as 200 people in Roanoke.

Then FEMA abandoned its Virginia relocation plans.

"So, here we were with this group with lots of energy and enthusiasm and no one to serve," Strickland said. "We thought, 'If they're not coming to us, perhaps we go to them.' "

That was the birth of the Interfaith Coalition of Neighbors Helping Neighbors.

In all, 14 churches found volunteers to be rotated in and out of the Gulf area to help with clean-up and rebuilding. Every week another crew left as one returned.

Strickland was in the first group, which left New Year's Day 2006.

By the first anniversary of the storm, the coalition had sent 29 teams to the disaster area, mainly to a town called Bay St. Louis, Miss.

They continued until April 2009. So much had been done by then, the help of outside volunteers was no longer needed.

Strickland went on four trips herself. Early on, the work was scraping away mud and muck. By the end, Strickland, who had spent years swinging a gavel as a judge but had little experience with a hammer, was helping to finish carpentry.

She found the work rewarding, and made friends among the volunteers.

And she was touched by the gratitude of the homeowners.

"They were right beside you trying to maintain a composure of 'All is in control and my life is OK,' when we knew very well their lives were not OK," Strickland said.

Jim Bier, a now-retired Ferrum College chemistry professor, went twice to the Gulf with Strickland, and twice with his church, St. Peter's Episcopal in Callaway.

"Satisfaction sort of comes from when people don't feel like they have that much support from institutions like the government and so on, but yet people keep showing up and working on it," he said. "That meant so much to them. ... That drew us back."

Bier now promotes what he calls "eco-justice travel," with the "eco" standing for both ecology and economy. The idea is, instead of just lying around on a beach for your vacation, use that time to go help someone in need.

For Strickland, the legacy was a refreshing view of humanity.

"So often, in the work that I do, I see misery and unhappiness and anger and actions that flow from those emotions," she said. "And this was a complete 180 for me, to see everyone joining together in loving harmony."

Cooking up a family

At the same time Strickland and her group were in Bay St. Louis, Logan Schalk was just across St. Louis Bay in a place called Pass Christian, Miss., figuring out how to serve quality food to up to 1,000 people at a time, three meals a day, all from a makeshift kitchen in a trailer.

Schalk, 31, had been a chef and partner in a Los Angeles restaurant, he said, when he answered the call to help his church, the Jehovah's Witnesses, with its relief efforts.

He headed to Mississippi, thinking he would stay two weeks.

Once there, he couldn't abide the quality of food being served to storm victims. He extracted himself from his role with his restaurant and moved into a tent on the Gulf Coast.

He served crepes and home-fried potatoes for breakfast. With donated supplies, he said, he and his volunteer crews made pasta from scratch, built a smoker from cinder blocks and roasted whole pigs. He served the best food he could muster.

"It gave me a whole new perspective on being a chef, and why you should be a chef," Schalk said. "How a simple home-cooked meal could brighten the day of someone."

Every two weeks, a new crew of volunteers arrived. In one was a young Roanoke woman named Acacia Craighead, an Applebee's manager who had come with her whole family to volunteer.

There in the kitchen, romance sparked. A while later, the couple was married at Lime Kiln Theater in Lexington. The wedding was catered by the same people who had volunteered in Schalk's Pass Christian kitchen. His groomsmen were volunteers from Boston.

As a wedding gift, other volunteers gave the couple an atlas with all of their addresses marked so the newlyweds could visit.

The couple worked in the disaster area until 2008. Since then, Schalk has been a Roanoke resident. He's a business partner with his father-in-law in a catering and mobile brick oven pizza business that puts to use tricks Schalk learned cooking on the Gulf Coast.

"Her father and I are best friends," Schalk said.

Besides the pizza business, Schalk took a job managing the Smokey Bones restaurant at Valley View Mall.

He's doing it partly for the medical benefits.

The Schalks are about to become parents.

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