Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Brethren volunteer shares life, work, and more on Gulf Coast.

For Santos Morales, going to the Gulf Coast for Hurricane Katrina recovery was another important stop on his journey out of a rough life. The 57-year-old native of East Los Angeles said he could understand the hardships faced by Gulf Coast residents.

"I know what's it like to be homeless and penniless," said Morales, who spent 35 years involved with gangs and criminal activity that landed in him in prison four times. Having been in tough spots many times himself, he knew he had to help.

Some 10 years since turning his life around, Morales spent three weeks of volunteer work in Chalmette, La., rehabbing homes with Church of the Brethren disaster volunteer teams. The experience was moving, he said, adding that the trip was about more than the physical. "Just seeing all that devastation--and it wasn't just the buildings, it was the humans," he said. "There was such a need there for just a smile."

Despite being a skilled roofer and dry-waller, Morales said his willingness to give smiles and to talk with families was his most valuable work while in Chalmette. That communication created new friendships and allowed residents to share how they were doing with the recovery, he said.

"Buildings can be rebuilt and replaced, but the people will take longer," he said. "The people need to be rebuilt."

For someone who looks like he does--"I have a lot of tattoos, so people get nervous when they first see me"--Morales said it was nice to also help break down stereotypes and make friends with people who never would have met a former gang member from the streets of Los Angeles. His sense of humor helped smooth the communication, he said.

Everyone working together is what matters most, he added. "We all come from different walks of life," Morales said. "What's important is where we're headed."

Morales, who lives in New Windsor, Md., and volunteers regularly at the Brethren Service Center there, said he would recommend a Gulf Coast hurricane recovery trip to everyone. Whether volunteers go for a day or a week or longer, he said it was important to show affected residents how much people care. He said he expected to return early next year.

"I've done dirty and tough work before, but I've never done it for a good cause," he said. "But I enjoyed this job and the people."

Morales said he was happy to have shared his time and talents with others. He considers himself fortunate to be where he is now and hopes to continue moving his life in the right direction. "I'm thankful," he said. "I don't have much. Whatever I have and experience I share with others. I know what it can do for others because it's been done for me."

--By Heather Moyer for Disaster News Network. Reproduced with permission from Disaster News Network,, (c) 2007 Village Life Company.

Source: 10/24/2007 Newsline Special Report

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