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Church Team Making Repairs in Whittier : Helping Hands Provide Quake Relief

February 07, 1988|MARY LOU FULTON | Times Staff Writer

WHITTIER — A retired carpenter from Michigan and an Iowa farmer stood in the cramped living room, carefully gluing wooden paneling on walls scarred by gaping holes and cracks caused by the October earthquakes.

They moved furniture to the front porch of the pale yellow house to make room for a paint-stained ladder and a pair of sawhorses that carpenter Paul Stoub, 70, had carted from Grand Rapids in the back of his truck.

Stoub got some help from Henry Nieuwsma, 60, who left his farm in Pella, Iowa, to spend six weeks assisting in the earthquake relief effort.

The two are part of a small volunteer team from the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, a Michigan-based group that has been in Whittier since six days after the Oct. 1 earthquake.

After providing emergency help in the days after the earthquake, the team spent weeks compiling a door-to-door survey of Uptown-area homes to see if the disaster relief effort was adequate. Now, team members are offering to repair the earthquake-damaged homes of needy residents for only the cost of materials.

But in Whittier, a city that boasts of its neighborly spirit, only about a half-dozen people have volunteered to help the team. Team members are reluctant to criticize, but, "we've been a little disappointed," said Lee Schneider, also of Grand Rapids.

According to the team's survey, about 75% of 1,750 homeowners around the largely low-income Uptown business district said their needs were not being met by existing relief programs. From those households, the team compiled a list of more than 120 needy owners of earthquake damaged homes and, two weeks ago, starting making repairs.

That is what Stoub and Nieuwsma were doing last week in the living room of a 76-year-old Whittier woman who had a stroke a few days before the earthquake.

The woman is being cared for by her sister, who said her only earthquake aid has been an $877 federal grant to fix the house's plumbing. Without help from Stoub and Nieuwsma, the holes in the wall she has been staring at for four months would have gone unrepaired.

"They're very nice," said the woman's sister, who asked that her name not be used. "It would be a nice world if everybody helped like them."

Disaster recovery is the specialty of the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, an arm of the 350,000-member Christian Reformed Church. The committee has helped in disaster relief efforts for 25 years, including the 1986 floods in Yuba City, the 1985 earthquakes in Coalinga, and most recently in December after tornadoes devastated West Memphis, Ark.

Team members, drawn from a national pool of about 700 volunteers, usually arrive in husband-and-wife pairs that spend from two weeks to two months in a disaster area. Four couples are now in Whittier, living in a rented three-bedroom house a few blocks from Uptown.

Chimneys Broken

During the day, Stoub and Nieuwsma go out on construction jobs. They have completed work on four houses in the last two weeks, but they are hampered because neither is a professional bricklayer, and broken chimneys are at the top of many people's repair lists.

The rest of the team spends the day visiting homes of the needy and providing friendly, free guidance for people confused by the maze of forms and appeals the federal aid process requires. In many cases, it takes some talking to convince people that the team members are sincere.

"They look at us and they say, 'Why? Why are you doing this?"' said Kay Schneider, adding that residents are weary of come-ons from unscrupulous contractors.

"When you tell them you'll be here in the morning, they don't believe you," Stoub said. "They think it's too good to be true."

Apart from financial matters, committee workers say people are still recovering emotionally from the earthquake. "The people are coming back to their senses again," Lee Schneider said. "Older people and children still suffer quite a bit from it. It was a very traumatic experience for the older people."

Talking about the earthquake or showing an interested stranger cracks in the walls means as much to some people as getting more money from the government, Schneider said.

"That's part of our mission, too--not only to build their homes, but build their spirits."

Relax at Night

In the evenings, team members retreat to their house on Washington Street and relax, unless they need to make a few phone calls to residents who work during the day. Leisure time is spent watching television--favorite programs are the game shows "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy"--or playing cards.

A stack of six mattresses takes up one corner of the carpeted living room, where mismatched upholstered chairs sit in a semicircle around the television set. Team members have converted a den to an office, and set up tables for dining and playing cards in other rooms.

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