Sager Brown Hits the Road

Sager Brown Hits the Road
Florida Gailes, who manages the sewing room at Sager Brown Depot, sews supplies for disaster relief kits in Baldwin, La.

The Sager Brown depot operated by United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) in Baldwin, La., is best known as a place where thousands of volunteers spend a week or two each year packing relief supplies for disaster victims.

So why was Sager Brown volunteer Gloria Lobnitz wielding a crowbar against the rotted floor of an old house trailer in the nearby town of Franklin?

The answer, said Kathy Kraiza, executive director of UMCOR Relief Supplies, is simple: “We live here. So we don’t feel like we can just serve outside of this local community. Our staff is from here, and so we want to be involved with ministries in this local area.”

Sager Brown’s volunteers get a chance not only to pack relief supplies but to repair storm-damaged homes and fill other roles in the local community.

“I think I was a frustrated construction person ever since I was a child,” said Ms. Lobnitz, whose first career was as a nurse. “I grew up in the era when girls did girl things and boys did boy things, and they wouldn’t even let me take high school shop. So now I think I’m kind of getting back at them,” she laughed.

The trailer Ms. Lobnitz was repairing belonged to an elderly man. “They were about falling through the floor,” she said. “They had three or four layers of rugs on it just supporting it, and that’s about all.”

Matt Wiemeyer, a long-term volunteer from York, Pa., who supervises volunteers doing home repairs in the community, said that’s a very common problem. “Almost every job that we do is either a ceiling leak or floor damage based on that leak.”

Ms. Lobnitz was working with other volunteers from First United Methodist Church in Orlando, Fla. They ripped out the rotted flooring, replaced the floor joists and then laid down a new, solid floor that won’t need the dubious support of multiple rugs. “[The work] is a great privilege, a ministry that the Lord’s called me to,” she said.

That many homes need repair is not surprising in an area regularly hit by storms that have names. What makes it worse is the poverty of rural southern Louisiana.

“There just are not a lot of job opportunities in this area,” Ms. Kraiza said. There’s the sugar cane harvest, which is seasonal and low-wage, and offshore oil work, which pays well. “So there’re really the haves and have-nots around here,” she said. “The other area of work is casinos, but when you’re dealing with the casino, a lot of times the money goes right back to [the employer].”

Besides home repair work, Sager Brown volunteers work at Chez Hope, a home for survivors of domestic violence, help with a Head Start program or assist teachers in a local school.

Or, like volunteer Jan Wilkerson of Muskogee, Okla., they can work with Catholic Charities to distribute food boxes once a month to low-income senior citizens under a Department of Agriculture program. Most of the food recipients live on Social Security, maybe $700 a month, said Ms. Wilkerson, a Sager Brown volunteer for seven years. “I’m retired, and I find that I’m more satisfied and happiest when I’m serving other people in some way,” she said.

“Part of our mission here at Sager Brown is to make sure the volunteers are aware of what’s in this community,” Ms. Kraiza said. “By the end of the week, they’re so excited —‘I got to do this, and I got to do that.’ Our response is always, ‘And there’re those same needs in your local community.’”

Mary Ellen Szuwalski sees those needs in her home community. She talked about it while working at a sewing machine putting hems on baby blankets to go into birthing kits at the Sager Brown Depot.

Ms. Szuwalski is a member of First United Methodist in Richardson, Texas, a Dallas suburb. She and four others from the Rejoice Circle of United Methodist Women spent a week volunteering at Sager Brown.

South Dallas is an impoverished community with many Hispanic immigrant workers, some with working papers, some without, Ms. Szuwalski said. Many of these immigrants have jobs, lawn care for example, but the jobs don’t pay a living wage so there is also a lot of homelessness. “We see children who have no school supplies, no shoes, no winter coats,” she said.

First United Methodist Church of Richardson is “mission-minded,” whether that is overseas, a day’s drive away at Sager Brown or in the Dallas community, she said. “It’s a big thing that we contribute outside the church.” Other members of the Rejoice Circle were hard at work in Sager Brown’s huge warehouse. Volunteers packing disaster relief supplies surrounded several tables just inside the front door. Some of them wore t-shirts that read, “What Happens at Sager Brown Does Not Stay at Sager Brown.”

At the end of October 2012, no one could deny the importance of their work. Hurricane Sandy was just hitting the East Coast, and volunteers at several of the tables were packing health kits that were going to that area. The health kits include a towel, washcloth, soap, toothbrush, adhesive bandages and other supplies. The materials had been donated by individuals and churches around the country. At Sager Brown, volunteers checked each one to be sure that the correct items were included and removed the occasional rusty nail file or other items that were not clean and new.

Among the other relief supplies processed by Sager Brown volunteers are layette kits with diapers, shirts, wash cloths and blankets; sewing kits with three yards of fabric, scissors, needles, threat and buttons; school kits with scissors, paper, pencils, erasers, crayons, ruler; and five-gallon cleaning buckets packed with detergent, dish soap, insect repellant, a scrub brush, sponges, scouring pads, clothesline, trash bags, gloves and more. Except for the cleaning buckets made for domestic use, the kits are distributed all over the world.

On a wall over the work tables a sign quoted Matthew 5:16: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in Heaven.”

Sager Brown dates back to shortly after the Civil War. It was at one time an orphanage and a school for African-American children. The Woman’s Home Missionary Society, a United Methodist Women predecessor, operated the school until 1978. Fourteen years later, UMCOR used the then-vacant property as the center of its relief operations after Hurricane Andrew hit Florida and Louisiana. A few years later, UMCOR made the relief depot permanent.

Local volunteers often come for a day, and many of these are from United Methodist Women’s groups. When Hurricane Isaac threatened the area in August 2012, Ms. Kraiza sent all the out-of-state volunteers home. “So when we began relief work, we had no volunteers here, and we needed to start getting things out. Then a couple of local United Methodist Women’s groups came.”

Each year more than 3,000 out-of-state volunteers sign up for either short-term or longer tours of duty at Sager Brown. Typically groups or individuals come from churches around the South or Midwest for a week, sometimes two. Volunteers stay in plain but comfortable dormitory rooms on the 23-acre campus overlooking Bayou Teche.

Longer-term volunteers are critical to the smooth functioning of Sager Brown. One of these is Shirley Kunzman, a retired fifth grade teacher from Douds, Iowa. Since 2000, she and her husband, Charlie, have volunteered three months a year at Sager Brown. She is the hostess at the volunteers’ dormitory, welcoming guests when they arrive and giving guided tours of the campus. “I didn’t want to take a cruise!” Ms. Kunzman laughed, explaining why she keeps coming back to Sager Brown. “We came here soon after we retired, and I just felt that this is a place where we can do more good for more people than other places that we might be able to go.”

Ms. Kunzman also runs the small gift shop on campus. In the dining room one day, as volunteers and staff held hands for prayer before the noon meal, she talked about the “prosperity candles” for sale at the gift shop. The candles are made by Burmese women who have come to the United States to make new lives after living in refugee camps. UMCOR partners with the Prosperity Candle company to distribute the candles, benefitting both the refugees and UMCOR’s World Hunger/Poverty program. In this way, both the makers and the purchasers of the candles can follow the advice to “let your light shine.”

Jim West is an editorial photographer based in Detroit, Mich., and a frequent contributor to response.

Posted or updated: 3/31/2013 11:00:00 PM