Church groups respond to need after Katrina tragedy

By Tracy Douglas

When Jenny Glusica, senior in Business, and Mike Michalski, junior in ACES, had the chance to lend a helping hand to the victims of Hurricane Katrina the week after it hit, they took it, and went with the team from Illini Life Christian Fellowship and Grace Community Church during Labor Day weekend.

“I felt like I had no reason not to go,” Glusica said. She doesn’t have class Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and her professors were nice about missing class, she said.

Michalski said he was told about the trip at Illini Life’s Saturday night church service on Sept. 3, and had to commit to going by 10 p.m. that night.

“I felt like I really wanted to serve those people in their time of need,” Michalski said.

The group joined hundreds of volunteers who swept into Louisiana to aid in relief efforts for those affected by the hurricane.

“Our value system is to care about people. We saw people in need, and part of our system is to respond to need and hurting people,” said Wayne Wager, pastor of Illini Life.

Illini Life staff member Dan Herron said the Grace Community Church in Urbana proposed the trip to the group.

“They had a desire to organize teams to go down there. They sent out an e-mail to different local churches … and we responded right away,” Herron said.

Herron also said the team had 12 people from Illini Life and about 20 members overall, including those from Grace Community Church. Glusica and Michalski’s team went to Baton Rouge, La. and volunteered at the River Center shelter in downtown Baton Rouge.

The group reached the city at 9 a.m. Sept. 5, and was told where to go, Glusica said. Along with another member of the group, she went to the Red Cross communications center to help with records.

“We helped them to set up a paper trail to handle missing persons,” Glusica said. “It was really chaotic. There were so many volunteers, almost too many.”

This led her to switch departments the next day to serve food to the refugees.

Michalski worked in a makeshift hospital in a run-down Kmart and handed out clothes at the shelter. Both said they were struck by the multitude of emotions that they observed in the shelter.

“I will remember, probably, the feel of the inside of the refugee center, a feeling of hopelessness and loss,” Michalski said. “It was really neat to actually be down there.”

Glusica said she will remember how optimistic some people were amidst the tragedy. She met one man who had lost his house but held the attitude of “oh well, it just happened.”

“The hardest thing was to see how racially segregated we still are. The people in the shelter were 99 percent black,” Glusica said. “We still have a far ways to go.”

Glusica also said she was glad that she went, “I felt like I was actually doing something about it.”

Illini Life plans to send more people in the coming months, Wager said.

“We haven’t decided how much are we going to invite students to invade their schedules,” Wager said. He said they are looking into a trip over a weekend before Thanksgiving and one during the first five days of Thanksgiving break.