Evacuees find home away from home

Published 7:00 pm Thursday, August 30, 2012

Isaac is the third uninvited guest to displace them from their home, but Sylvarena Baptist Church has been there with open doors every time.

     Shirley Rivera and her daughter, Stephanie Rivera, 20, sat around a table Wednesday at Sylvarena Baptist in Wesson. Rain pelted the windows, but the Riveras were dry and warm.

     They know things are far different at their home in Metairie, La.

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     “Where we live we are five blocks from the levee,” Shirley Rivera said. “We were scared.”

     When Isaac was still miles away in the Gulf, though, they planned to stay.

     “We thought, it’s not going to be that bad,” Shirley Rivera said. “We planned to stay home.”

     But then, increasingly, news reports warned of how severe conditions could become. Shirley Rivera knew a place they could go, a place that had been there for them twice before.

     Through all the coastal hurricanes they’ve lived through, the shelter at Sylvarena Baptist has been a home away from home. The Riveras came to the shelter at Sylvarena during Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Gustav.

     “This was like Heaven after Katrina,” Shirley Rivera said.

     As of Wednesday afternoon, shelter organizers at Sylvarena said nine evacuees from coastal areas were at the church.

     Merle Hux, a 20-year church member, said she didn’t know if any more were coming. But she said the church is prepared for more.

     “We’re here if they need us,” Hux said.

     About 40 church members have volunteered to assist with the shelter at different times, Hux said. Sylvarena partners with Zion Hill Baptist Church to operate the shelter.

     Sylvarena provides shelter and security. Zion Hill Baptist Church provides food.

     Church organizers stressed that the involvement of Zion Hill and its pastor, the Rev. Tom McCormick, was vital to the success of the shelter. The shelter organizers also said there’s a lot of community support.

     The Rev. Stuart Givens, pastor at Sylvarena for 11 years, called the shelter essential to the church’s mission.

     “We do it because we’re ministering,” said Givens. “Jesus came as a servant and we’re not following Him if we’re not serving.”

     And the evacuees at the shelter expressed their appreciation for the service they’ve been shown.

     “They’ve taken good care of us,” said Hannah McKenzie, of Gretna, La.

     McKenzie came up to the shelter Monday with a fellow church member, Tanya Drake and Drake’s three children.

     McKenzie and Drake had been pointed in the direction of Sylvarena by their pastor who told them it was a good place to go.

     Drake has been in contact with her sister, who decided to stick it out.

     “The power poles and everything are down,” Drake said. “It’s pretty bad.”

     Other evacuees at the church included Mathew Beisel and Carl Escudé, students at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

     With a pack of playing cards and plenty of company from church members, Beisel and Escudé deemed their flight from New Orleans a wise move.

     It was McKenzie, though, who probably spoke for everyone there.

     “I hope we get to go home real soon,” she said.