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Hurricane hospitality and the connectional church

Eighty Louisiana evacuees receive a warm Texas welcome at Camp Gilmont

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

Hurricane evacuees enjoy fishing with simple cane poles at Camp Gilmont. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — A few days before Hurricane Laura made landfall as a category 4 storm in the early hours of Aug. 27, Marie Nelson, associate director of Gilmont Camp and Conference Center in Gilmer, Texas, reached out via email to the administrators of the nonprofit Evergreen Life Services, a community for adults of differing intellectual and developmental abilities in Lake Charles, Louisiana. She wanted to make sure they knew residents and staff from Evergreen would be welcome to shelter at the camp if needed, just as they had done briefly after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Evergreen prefers that its residents and staff not leave the state, so when evacuation became necessary, they were first sent to a hotel in Natchitoches, Louisiana, which lost electricity shortly after their arrival. It was then that Nelson’s offer of shelter became a definite lifeboat.

In the 1940s a few members of the Presbyterian church purchased and set aside the 400 acres now known as Camp Gilmont. The camp is now owned by a group of Presbyterian churches in East Texas. (Contributed photo)

The Evergreen guests settled in Camp Gilmont on Aug. 28, intending to stay about a week until they could move to housing at a state park in Louisiana. When the governor of Louisiana closed state parks to the public so they could be used as regional overflow isolation areas for those who had contracted the coronavirus, Camp Gilmont ensured evacuees that camp housing would be available until infrastructure and facilities at Evergreen have been restored.

“There are 80 evacuees and 2020 also happens to be Camp Gilmont’s 80th birthday!” Nelson said, adding the camp is grateful to be able to provide their Evergreen guests with shelter, meals and the peace of the East Texas woods. “It’s God’s plan,” Nelson said.

Of the camp’s accommodations, she said, individuals with special needs are more easily cared for in the cabins at camp, as opposed to individual hotel rooms. The space at camp allows caregivers and residents to live together in community similar to what they are familiar with at Evergreen. “They fit so well here,” she said, describing the experience as “transformational.”

To help adapt to camp life, a wish list on the website at gilmont.org has provided friends of the camp ways to help by sharing or buying items such as walkers, shower chairs, mattress pads, pillow supports and more. There are still needs to be met.

Certified staff provide an archery lesson for Camp Gilmont guests. (Contributed photo)

Andy Hackett, a member of the camp’s certified summer staff who is continuing his college studies online, has been able to provide activities such as archery and canoeing for the guests from Evergreen, Nelson said. A few other summer staff have returned to help the kitchen staff with meal preparation. Certified staff from Evergreen also pitched in to prepare a meal with some Cajun flair and give the Gilmont kitchen staff a break. Guests have gone fishing with cane poles and been pampered with mini-manicures on spa night.

Certified staff from Evergreen Life Services prepare a Cajun dinner to give the camp kitchen staff a break. (Contributed photo)

The camp’s 80th birthday, set for Sept. 19, will be primarily a virtual celebration. Learn more here.

Both Camp Gilmont and Evergreen Life Services have deep Presbyterian roots in the Synod of the Sun and the Synod of Living Waters, which is why camp volunteer Miatta Wilson, director of Children’s Ministries at First Presbyterian Church in Dallas, decided to reach out to Grace Presbytery and the connectional church for help in meeting needs of the camp and its guests.

Jane Els and Miatta Wilson are two of many beloved volunteers at Camp Gilmont. (Contributed photo)

“On Monday I rose early to buy mops, buckets, plungers, fans and coffee before driving to Camp Gilmont,” Wilson wrote on the website of First Presbyterian Church. “I worked at lunch with Jimmy and Mandy, two hard-working residents who were able to understand mask-wearing and learned to load and run the camp dishwasher. They were feeling sad that their group home and workshop where they held jobs was damaged. But they were joyful and grateful for food, air conditioning and being together in a safe environment.”

Wilson contacted Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to see what assistance and resources might be available. About one-third of the evacuees are wheelchair bound and at least 20 require help eating. All need 24/7 assistance with basic living skills.

This ministry to evacuees is a “wonderful collaboration of providing hospitality and support for a vulnerable population,” said the Rev. Jim Kirk, PDA associate for U.S. disaster response. As part of that collaboration, PDA has offered an initial assistance grant to the presbytery, resilience webinars for Gilmont and Evergreen staff, and virtual deployment of PDA National Response Team member the Rev. David Gill from Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center a few hours away.  Gill was able to procure Gift of the Heart hygiene kits and blankets from PDA partner, Church World Service, as well as a carload of games and crafts. “Our Presbyterian camps are a close-knit community and are happy to work with PDA and support one another,” he said. The goal of PDA’s involvement is to assist in identifying and bringing resources to the camp so that continued provision of resources does not become a financial hardship on Camp Gilmont or Evergreen Life Services, neither of which has the backup emergency provisions to sustain emergency assistance on their own long-term.

The Rev. David Gill, a PDA National Response Team volunteer, delivered hygiene kits, games, crafts and toys from friends at Ferncliff Camp for evacuees sheltering at Camp Gilmont. (Contributed photo)

“In a perfect world,” Kirk said, “FEMA or the Louisiana governor’s office will be able to reimburse the camp for the lodging and food — that would be the hope. A local mental health organization has offered to provide mental health resources to staff and clients. Other Presbyterians are responding to the wish list to meet immediate needs. I think this is an amazing example of a group coming together to go far to meet this need to provide hospitality to strangers.

To support PDA’s response to Hurricane Laura, designate gifts to DR000194. To learn more about Gift of the Heart Kits, clic here.


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