Article

Miracles for Life

Nathan Hartle

As the group’s name might suggest, the forming of the International Miracle Foundation required a leap of faith by a few people hoping to make a difference in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“I am absolutely certain this is what must be done,” says Ira Williams, leader and founder of the not-for-profit organization. Dedicated to finding permanent housing for those set adrift by the tragedies of one year ago, the group—consisting largely of former Red Cross volunteers—has taken on its cause despite limited resources and a future often fraught with uncertainty.

From its small offices in Darrow, the foundation’s handful of staff members juggle a daunting caseload. At the beginning of August, they were handling around twenty clients simultaneously, and were in tentative contact with many more. Each is a challenge, as evacuees often face a wide field of obstacles, not to mention a maze of bureaucratic red tape, in their search for a leg to stand on. Williams maintains that merely locating a residence for someone in need is not enough—they must be helped through the various issues of homeownership and transportation.

“You can’t really expect anyone to keep a house that really doesn’t know how…There are so many issues that are going to prevent them from being able to keep it.”

It is these issues that have concerned Williams since his first days as a Red Cross volunteer in the wake of Katrina. He watched from his home in Eugene, Ore., as the full extent of the storm’s devastation was made clear and felt what he describes as an “overpowering urge” to help. He, like so many others, saw the Red Cross as a chance to lend a hand in setting right the images of desperation that so horrified him.

After his period as a Red Cross volunteer at a Gonzales shelter, Ira quickly made the decision to remain in Ascension Parish, and to form a new organization devoted to helping the victims of the hurricane find new, permanent homes—something that did not seem to be the focus of the Red Cross’ operation. He is quite clear on his group’s goals.

“It’s about housing, it’s about employment, it’s about getting people to the point of self-sufficiency.”

The process of starting a nonprofit organization, however, was not nearly so rapid. No longer connected to the Red Cross, Williams had few resources to work with. Without a source of funding he could not support the friends and Red Cross volunteers who were interested in working on the project. Lacking even transportation, he had to walk everywhere—including the three-mile trip from the motel where he was staying to the public library, where he was doing the needed research. It was a rough time.

“I found I was spending more time walking than getting things done,” he recalls. It was not until a brief trip back to Oregon to attend a friend’s funeral that he was able to obtain a vehicle and a computer.

In the meantime, the process of serving those in need “never really stopped.” Though lacking the funding to provide services on a grand scale, Williams did what he could, from moving furniture to hounding Red Cross and FEMA representatives by phone about the frequent holdups in the evacuees’ applications for aid. All the while, friends in other parts of the country were contributing however they could, writing proposals and creating a website.

The opening of the group’s offices on March 12 has allowed them to serve in a more organized fashion. As the group’s volunteers are from other areas of the country, those operating locally have in some cases had to pull up roots, relocating to Lousiana. The staff offices double as a dormitory.

Formerly a vacant house, the building has become a hub of a dizzying array of activities, all undertaken with a single focus. As Williams says, “It’s about housing…it’s about getting people to the point of self sufficiency.”

For clients without transportation, the foundation helps them get a car—or fix the one they’ve got. For those in immediate need of a roof over their heads, the group helps them find a shelter. And, of course, they find permanent homes for those who have none. Partners include Duplessis Pontiac Buick GMC and First United Methodist Church of Gonzales.

New clients have made calls, emailed, and even knocked on their front door. Sometimes the calls come in after hours, from evacuees simply wishing to talk over their worries. Williams says, “We do our best to calm their fears and tell them everything is going to be alright.”

A tall order, as the IMF has worries of its own. Though the agency Volunteer Ascension has provided some financial assistance, a primary source of funding has remained elusive. Under mounting pressure from bills and expenses, the group has had to rely extensively on friends, family and private donors, as well as their own bank accounts, to stay above water. But all have worn thin. Williams pulls no punches about the desperate nature of the situation.

“We’re getting pretty close to the end of our rope here.”

Whether or not they survive, the group has no regrets. To a region still reeling from tragedy, from an organization that has made a way of life out of doing a lot with precious little, Williams has a message:

“As long as there is love in the world, there is reason to hope…Give whatever, and whenever you can. Life depends on it!”