NORTH TONAWANDA -- Parishioners from three Niagara County churches are making post-Thanksgiving plans that have nothing do with kicking back for the holidays.
The week after Thanksgiving, they intend to drive 1,200 miles to Long Beach, Miss., on the Gulf of Mexico to help rebuild one of the communities destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. For many of them, it will be their second visit to the storm-ravaged area.
Nelson "Rocky" Dworak, deacon at St. Mark's Episcopal Church of the Tonawandas, remembers the final night of his visit last year.
"We all sat around talking about the week we had just spent there, and everyone agreed they'd never felt so exhausted in their life, and at the same time, never had so much fun," he said. "Then everybody looked at each other and said altogether, 'We're coming back next year.' "
Dworak and his wife, Diane, will lead a mission of 16 parishioners from St. Mark's and two other churches -- St. Paul's Episcopal Church of Lewiston and Christ Episcopal Church in Lockport.
They plan to make the drive to Long Beach, about 60 miles northeast of New Orleans, in two vans. For the week following, home-away-from-home will be a stark metal building operated by Camp Coast Care, a Christian organization that provides volunteer help in the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort.
The local Christian mission is being coordinated by the Mississippi organization of the Lutheran Episcopal Ministry.
Katrina was a Category 3 storm when it slammed into the southeast Louisiana coast on Aug. 29, 2005, breaching nearly every levee in New Orleans and flooding 80 percent of the city. Across the wide swath of the storm surge, from central Florida to Texas, more than 1,800 people were killed. Damage topped $80 billion.
More than three years later, the rebuilding continues.
"A lot of people are still living in trailers," Dworak said, referring to the temporary accommodation belatedly provided thousands of Gulf Coast residents by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Dworak thinks it will take another five years before the area is totally rehabilitated.
The Niagara County volunteers will take a variety of skills to help rebuild Long Beach, Miss.
Dworak, a tool-and-die worker by trade, is a power generation manager at the GM plant in the Town of Tonawanda. St. Mark's parishioner Marty Hall is a plumber. Retiree John Kucharski proudly refers to himself as an unskilled worker.
"As a jack of all trades, I get to do it all," he said.
The Rev. Susan Keppy, rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Lewiston, and her husband, Douglas, are making their second trip to Long Beach.
"I don't have any particular skills, but, as I told them last year, I'm teachable," Keppy said last week. "I learned how to lay tile, and I personally helped put up drywall. We try to put our faith to work in practical ways."
Christ Episcopal Church in Lockport, headed by the Very Rev. Jack Marshall, is sending two parishioners.
The parishes have been holding fundraising dinners and other events to collect the estimated $15,000 needed to undertake the mission. Many of the volunteer parishioners are using vacation time to go on the trip.
Last year's youngest volunteer from St. Mark's Parish was Alan Shoen, who just squeaked in under the minimum requirement age of 16.
"He was open to doing anything," Dworak said. "He went down there as a 16-year-old boy and came back as a 16-year-old man."
The annual trip to the Gulf Coast fits in perfectly with the overall Episcopal mission.
"Outreach ministry is part and parcel of what it means to be a Christian," the Rev. Jerre W. Feagin, rector of St. Mark's, said last week in the church at 61 Payne Ave.
Pastor Keppy can't think of a more rewarding way to begin the Thanksgiving-Christmas holiday season.
"It's important for us to bring help and hope to folks who are in dark places," she said. "And at the end of each day, you see actual progress. You look at a damaged house and you see a wall where there wasn't one before. It's enormously satisfying."