Diocese creates new ‘Starfish’ ministry to help meet evacuees’ needs

By Janet Marcel
Catholic News Service

HOUMA, La. (CNS) -- The Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux has created a new ministry to respond to the needs of thousands of Katrina evacuees in the area.

"After the storm a few of us just showed up at the Houma-Terrebonne Civic Center in Houma to see what the people who were there needed," said Father Mark Toups.

"In talking and praying with the evacuees, we realized that they felt as though their dignity had been compromised by this tragedy," the priest said. "They were sleeping on the floors, wearing someone else's clothes, unable to even take a shower."

The situation prompted Bishop Sam G. Jacobs of Houma-Thibodaux, along with Father Toups, who is director of the diocese's Vocation Office, and Paul George, who works in relational ministry for the office, to create the Adore Starfish ministry.

The first thing friends and supporters of the ministry did was to put up shower facilities at the civic center and at a shelter at a recreation center. It was a start but they knew they could do more.

Father Toups also learned that many of the people at the shelters were searching for family members and for some word about how they were, where they were and if they had survived the storm.

"Because of the overwhelming number of evacuees, we are trying to keep our focus on helping 'one person at a time,' like the man in the starfish story,'" he told the Bayou Catholic, Houma-Thibodaux's diocesan newspaper.

He was referring to a story called "The Star Thrower" by Loren Eiseley, from which the ministry took its name. As the story goes, a man jogging down the beach after a major storm is dismayed to see all the starfish the storm washed up on the beach. But he feels there is nothing he can do because there are so many of them.

As he continues down the beach he sees an old man bend over, pick up a starfish and throw it in the water. As the jogger approaches, he sees the old man again bend over to pick up a starfish. As he is about to throw it in the water, the jogger asks: "Why are you doing that? There are thousands of starfish. You can't possibly make a difference." The old man looks at the starfish in his hand, throws it back in the water and replies: "I made a difference to that one, didn't I?"

To find out what Katrina victims need, volunteers with Adore Starfish walk around the shelters talking to the evacuees one-on-one, asking them how they are doing and what they need, and trying to find out if they have family members or friends for whom they are still searching and whether they have relatives who might be able to help them.

A local restaurant owner, Mike Duplantis, has given volunteers space in his restaurant lounge to set up a command post. Duplantis also had extra phone lines installed for Internet access, so volunteers can hook up their own laptops or computers from the diocese and use them to locate and contact evacuees' relatives. Whatever information they find out they take back to evacuees.

Then, to help reunite family members, the Adore Starfish ministry pays for airline or bus tickets and finds a way to get people to the airport or bus station. Father Toups said the local sheriff's department and the Terrebonne Council on Aging have been helping with transportation.

During the first four days of the project, 150 people were reunited with their loved ones.

"The most important thing during the whole process is just being present for them, listening to their stories and letting them know that the people of this community care about them and are here to help them," said Father Toups. "We're just taking it day by day and doing what we think God wants us to do."

Copyright (c) 2005 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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