Group heads on 7th mission relief trip

For the seventh time since 2007, a local group of more than 40 volunteers are heading out on a mission relief trip to help others impacted by a natural disaster. The group, which volunteers through the National Relief Network, leaves next Tuesday for Plymouth, Ind., where heavy rain and melting snow in February caused severe flooding and damaged many homes and businesses.

The first trip, organized by Marcia Hoppe, took a group of youth and adult chaperones from St. Bernard Catholic Church to New Orleans a year after Hurricane Katrina. The experience dramatically impacted those involved.

“Oh my, I can still cry when I think about it,” said Hoppe. “When the dam broke it went over the houses. People were saved only because they got to their roof. We went in a year later. We wore masks, gloves and steel-toed shoes, and our job was emptying everything out of the homes.”

That was 2007. The next year, the group from Alpena traveled to Parkersburg, Iowa, to help families impacted by an F5 category tornado.

As word spread about the mission trips, more people beyond just St. Bernard’s wanted to participate. Hoppe teamed up with Vicki Denstaedt, who represented the local Lutheran community. The makeup of those involved also changed.

“When I first did this, I was the youth minister at St. Bernard’s. It was mostly youth and chaperones,” Hoppe said. “The most awesome thing now is that families go together. Again, it chokes me up – seeing fathers, mothers, children, doing this together. It is life changing.”

Succeeding relief trips included Nashville, Tenn. (flooding, 2010); Henryville, Ind. (F4 tornado, 2012); Mayflower, Ark. (F4 tornado, 2014); and Holly Springs, Miss. (F4 tornado, 2016).

Hoppe said this current group heading to Indiana expects to clean out homes where the Yellow River overflowed its banks. They will leave Alpena on Tuesday afternoon as soon as Alpena Public Schools let out for the summer. They originally were scheduled to leave two days earlier, but snow days in Alpena causes the school year to be extended by two half days. The group will be gone until next Saturday.

A total of 43 will be volunteering. Their expenses of $500 per person are covered by grants, donations and fundraisers such as bottle drives, bake sales and second collections taken up at church. Hoppe said expenses were fully covered with the other six previous trips as well.

“We have never once not raised all of our money because of the generosity and love of our community,” she said.

Each trip brings its own rewards, but there are several that stick out for Hoppe. She said that during the 2012 trip to Henryville, Ind., they provided relief efforts to a women with a llama farm. That woman, Tricia Handley, was so impressed with the help and generous spirit of the group from Alpena, that she has joined up with them every time since and will be meeting them on site in Plymouth, Ind.

“She now pays it forward,” Hoppe said. “She joins us every year on her own. We always have a gathering at All Saints after the trips and somebody shares a video presentation. She sometimes comes all the way to Michigan for that, too. Who ever dreamt it would keep going like it has.”

Hoppe also believes the first mission trip to New Orleans impacted the career choice of one of her youth group members at that time, Rob Morford. She said that as a result of that life-changing experience, today Morford works for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Besides providing hands-on labor, the mission group also uses the experience as a time for reflection and prayer. In the evenings, the participants write in journals, and Hoppe and asks them questions to get them thinking.

“We ask them who they met that day that changed them. What did they do that day that made a difference? We also pray together, so it makes it also a spiritual journey,” she said.

Besides Hoppe and Denstaedt, Staci Chroninger also has been a key organizer for the most recent trips taken on behalf of the National Relief Network, whose mission is to bring large numbers of volunteers to state and federally declared disaster areas for the purpose of helping families in their efforts to rebuild their homes, their communities and their lives. The organization is based in Greenville, Mich.