USA Today Nov. 29, 2011

Volunteers rebuild homes after disasters across the USA

By C. Todd Sherman for USA TODAY

Distressed by the TV images of mangled Gulf Coast homes after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Stephen Tybor, of Tupelo, Miss., recruited a handful of friends to go down to the Mississippi coast for a few days with him to help rebuild homes.

But after a call for volunteers went out on a Christian radio station, 684 people signed up to go. Tybor, 50, an executive for a building materials company, led them on an eight-day home-building blitz on the ravaged coast — the first of what would be numerous trips to disaster-stricken zones.

“We thought it would be a one-shot deal,” he says. “We were wrong.”

Volunteers construct a home on the site of one destroyed by a tornado in Smithville, Miss. More than 1,450 volunteers helped rebuild 70 homes and two churches there and in Hackleburg, Ala.

That trip six years ago has bloomed into Eight Days of Hope, a faith-based volunteer group led by Tybor that has dispatched 9,000 volunteers to the aftermath of disasters across the USA. Among them: floods in Tennessee last year and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 2008, and the tornadoes that tore through Mississippi and Alabama earlier this year. To date, volunteers have rebuilt 1,142 homes, completed $12.7 million worth of work and become one of the prominent volunteer rebuilding efforts in disaster zones. They assist mainly uninsured or under-insured residents struggling to rebuild homes and businesses.

Groups such as Eight Days of Hope fill an important niche after disasters, providing for victims when federal funding or insurance doesn’t, says Jeff Rent, a spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

For example, the agency disbursed $10 million in state and federal disaster funds after the tornadoes earlier this year, not nearly enough to pay for all affected under-insured homes, he says.

“Volunteer groups like that certainly come in and assist with those needs,” Rent says. “They’re a critical part to disaster response and recovery.”

Eight Days of Hope sends hundreds of volunteers at a time into the hardest-hit areas for eight days, where they clear debris, erect walls, repair roofs or, in some cases, build houses from the slabs up, Tybor says. The name comes from a biblical interpretation of the number eight, which means “new beginnings,” he says.

The group recently sent workers to Smithville, Miss., and Hackleburg, Ala., two towns mauled by the April tornadoes. More than 1,450 volunteers from 43 states helped rebuild 70 homes and two churches in those towns, Tybor says.

“I’m just overwhelmed by them,” says Smithville Mayor Gregg Kennedy, who lost about 150 homes — half of the town’s stock — when a tornado with winds greater than 200 mph roared through. “It puts citizens back into town.”

Stephen Tybor stands on the foundation of a house destroyed by a tornado that ripped through Smithville, Miss., in April.

Eight Days of Hope defines itself as a faith-based volunteer group that shares religious teachings with residents as they build houses. Unlike other volunteer groups sponsored by a particular church, Eight Days’ recruits span a variety of Christian denominations, including Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals and others, Tybor says.

Tybor says he uses his connections in the construction business to secure donated or discounted building materials. Volunteers pay their own way to the work sites and donate their time and skills, while the group pays for meals and lodging. A small prayer begins and ends each day.

“We’re here to love people like Jesus loved us. We’re going to encourage you,” he says. “And, by the way, we’re going to fix your house.”

The Smithville tornado destroyed Sherrel Clark’s three-bedroom house. Her insurance covered only half the cost of rebuilding. Clark, 44, was planning on borrowing money from family and friends to complete the house and move in, maybe, sometime in the spring, she says.

Then, volunteers with Eight Days of Hope came to town. A group of 35 volunteers from 13 states raised her walls, put up her roof, laid all the electrical wiring and plumbing and installed all doors to her house and a separate building to house the non-profit group she runs — 3,600 square feet of livable space built in eight days, she says. She plans to move in by Christmas.

“I have never in my life gotten a blessing like this,” Clark says. “I’ve had blessings before. But not this big.”

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