During the first week of August, 230 members of American Baptist Home Mission Societies completed 25 volunteer projects — painting, gardening, laying sheetrock and other home repairs — coordinated through the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development.
“We got focused on the Lower Nine when I connected with Warrenetta (Banks), said Victoria Graff, national coordinator of the mission’s volunteer ministries. “Because (CSED) is a grassroots organization, it resonated with our mission.”
“Til the Work is Done” was the Baptist association’s 10th annual mission trip since Hurricane Katrina, though many individuals in their group visit more often.
“Once they come here, they see a culture that is like no other,” said Banks, CSED volunteer coordinator. “We live in a society where everybody is on their phone, but with this trip, they meet people and get involved in their lives.”
Since 2006, more than 4,500 volunteers have entered CSED’s cramped offices inside Greater Little Zion Baptist Church. Banks, a tireless community advocate and lifelong Lower 9th Ward resident, has greeted every one of them.
“They come with a lot of love,” she said.
Banks knows many of the volunteers by name and keeps in touch during the year through her weekly email newsletter. Many college students who were early Katrina volunteers return, now married with children. Marquette University sends a student group every quarter. Jewish boys becoming bar mitzvah do service work as they accept the responsibilities of adulthood.
“I love what I do. If I didn’t need money to pay the light bill, I’d pay them to let me work here,” Banks said enthusiastically. “Roots are very deep.”
Growing up at Tricou and Rampart Streets, she attended Joseph A. Hardin Elementary School and T. J. Semms Middle School. Her father worked at Domino Sugar Factory.
“My kids had both sets of grandparents in walking distance. That’s what the floodwaters took away,” she said.
When Katrina threatened, she, her husband and two daughters evacuated with just enough clothes and supplies for three days but ended up in Houston for a year.
“When you lose every single thing in one day and everyone you know lost every single thing in one day, what do you do?” Banks said. “How do you recover from that?”
The Bankses were finally able to return in July 2006 and lived for a year in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer. She felt survivor’s guilt because her house was still standing.
“I walked around the neighborhood and saw Louisiana license plates, and I knew I was home.”
Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter dinners were served in the FEMA trailer. Thanks to a Small Business Administration loan, the family was able to move into the house by Mother’s Day 2007. Meanwhile, the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association held meetings Uptown and formed CSED. During all that time, no one from the city or state visited the neighborhood, she said. One day, people walking down the street approached her, asking: “M’am, can we help you?” That encounter ignited her love of volunteers.
Soon after, Banks began working for CSED, coordinating volunteer groups arriving daily. Her own life was difficult, too. Banks lost her two sisters, parents and father-in-law, but Monday mornings after Saturday funeral services, excited volunteer groups were waiting to tackle home projects.
“This job was a saving grace for me because I could talk about (the storm) every day.”
Banks invites volunteers to worship on Sunday at Greater Little Zion Church, which was established in 1900. Before Hurricane Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward had 72 churches.
“My faith in God helped me,” she said.
Baptist volunteers also recently built a brick and sand labyrinth beside CSED’s Wetlands Education Center near Bayou Bienvenue to inspire reflection.
“Now, my tears are tears of joy,” Warrenetta said.