Grace Empowers African American Community
By Susan J. Meister*
January 7, 2009—"I am just so grateful that UMCOR selected GRACE Community Services," said Ruama Camp, executive director. "I would like everyone to know who GRACE is and to see how the hands of God are at work through the money that people gave to UMCOR."
GRACE Community Services (Generating Resource Awareness through Disaster Case Management and Education) has been involved in many powerful ministries since Hurricane Katrina roared across the Gulf Coast in August 2005. Over the past three years, the United Methodist Committee on Relief provided grant funds from the Hurricanes of 2005 Advance for ministry in the greater Houston area, which received thousands of families who evacuated from New Orleans and other areas on the Gulf Coast.
"God gave us a seed," Ms. Camp continued, her voice choking with emotion. "We are giving hope to people who didn't have hope. People have been able to experience God in a hurting community."
GRACE has conducted disaster preparedness classes, assisted churches in networking for appropriate disaster response, helped families with UMCOR case management services, and worked closely with children and teens impacted by the storm.
"GRACE trained the first African American disaster team in the country!" Ms. Camp said. "UMCOR did that!"
Disaster Institute Offers Training in Preparation and Response
"In the Disaster Institute, our purpose is to train and educate the lay community, community leaders and pastors on how to be prepared before, during, and after an event occurs," Ms. Camp explained. During the class, attendees are urged to develop a personal disaster kit, which contains essentials needed in case of a disaster and evacuation. Churches are urged to have additional kits available for their vulnerable members. In other training, churches learn about case management, construction and sheltering, and volunteering and hospitality.
GRACE has also partnered with the Harris County Citizens Corps to teach Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) classes. Over 150 team members have graduated from the program in both 2007 and 2008.
Education Department Serves All Ages
The GRACE Education Department has developed a wide array of services to children, youth, and adults seeking to cope with and move forward after Hurricane Katrina. The cornerstone of the ministry has been the after-school program at Casa Nube Apartment complex, home to many relocated Katrina families.
Coach Alonso Tibbs, a former middle school teacher and principal, and his staff transformed the waiting room outside the apartment rental office into "The Center," filled with computers and caring adults. The "After School is Key" program has been complemented with two mentoring programs for youth, "Men-2-Men" and God Has "D.I.V.A.'s, Too!" The ministry also sponsors the GRACE Youth Choir and hosted a teen summit, "Get Your Life Back." Included in the summit was a class on how the youth should prepare for a disaster, including the development of their own personal disaster kit.
GRACE also sponsors adult education classes and hosts a support group for ladies called "Ruth's Heart." An alternative Halloween event, Holyween, sponsored activities in the apartment complex at the end of October.
A highlight of the ministry was last summer's "Camp Noah," a faith-based day camp offered for elementary-age children in grades K-6 who have been affected by a disaster. Camp Noah, originally developed by Lutheran Social Services (LSS) in Minnesota, was adapted by Mr. Tibbs and his staff, with input from a team of students, to be culturally appropriate for the Houston children.
"Camp Noah helps our kids know that God didn't hurt them," Mr. Tibbs explained. "It helped instill hope." The team also treated parents to a "Parents' Camp Day," including a full spaghetti dinner. A Finale Carnival with cartoon characters and lots of activities closed out the camp.
"The energy they [GRACE staff] bring to their work is outstanding," said Carol Flores, a Houston area LSS staffer who helped Mr. Tibbs adapt the Camp Noah program. "The kids were having a great time at camp, and were well-behaved. The staff obviously loves the people they work with and are passionate about the people they serve."
Hurricane Katrina Response Continues, Folds into Ike Response
"GRACE has a tremendous ministry," said Rev. Tom Hazelwood, executive for UMCOR domestic disaster response. "They have continued to work with Katrina families and worked to help prepare African American churches to respond."
Statistical reports from the last three years through August 2008 indicate that over 1,000 persons have been assisted with GRACE case management, over 1,500 have been trained in disaster preparedness and response, and over 4,000 children and youth have been helped in after-school and other programs.
The ministry of GRACE Community Services continued with the recent response to Hurricane Ike. GRACE case managers worked on Galveston Island to help almost 300 families find housing all over the country. Youth in the after-school program helped prepare food boxes for distribution to needy families. GRACE redoubled the promotion of the Disaster Response Institute.
"Preparation prevents devastation," said Mr. Tibbs, who proudly shares numerous photos and videos about GRACE's ministry. "What we do is about experiencing God's grace and love in our communities."
* Meister is Domestic Disaster Response Correspondent with UMCOR