Cecil Graves III left Zachary at dust headed to the darkened remains of Lake Charles. The founder of Zachary is a Light didn’t have a final destination other than "to find someone to help him help others” when he met Daniel Washington Sr., a man he later called the "governor of his community."
Supplies were shared as their wide smiles signified the start of the healing process following one of the state’s most devastating hurricanes.
Similar engagements created a bond between Zachary and its neighbor to the west. Elected officials evacuating from the Lake Charles area traded relief strategies with their Zachary counterparts, first responders sent personnel to assist in rescue, and donation drives sent supplies by the truckload to the affected parishes.
Graves, a State Farm agent, left Lake Charles with an empty truck, but a full heart. “Successful end to a day,” he wrote on social media. “Two families got supplies and generators. One man the ‘governor of his community and one serves as a police officer with no home.”
The north Lake Charles ‘governor’ is not an elected official. Washington comes from a big family and was a high school football star known as “Moon Dog” in the predominantly Black community known as Gossport. He married his high school sweetheart and his wife, three children, and seven grandchildren were spread all over the state as he stayed to hold down the fort and cook outside for anyone who needed to eat left in his community.
The supplies brought from Zachary didn’t immediately help his family, but they helped other families not fortunate to make it out of harm’s way.
Washington’s friend, John Dugas, spent several nights sleeping with other men at the police department while his family evacuated to in Houston. “These men had incredible stories that I would love to share with anyone on my next ride,” Graves said. “Would you like to be a co-pilot or a driver to meet families that have bigger hearts than anyone I’ve ever seen, believe in the same God, and cried in prayer with us? Then let’s go.”
Zachary is a Light is a relatively new nonprofit organization started by Graves to provide scholarships, help single moms, and assist those less fortunate. After Hurricane Laura hit, two Zachary churches — St. Patrick's Episcopal Church and Fellowship Church — joined the relief effort and hosted an empty tractor trailer in front of each building as a drop-off spot for donations and supplies. Volunteers with Whimsical Alley, Cajun Catch, the Bank of Zachary and the Charity League helped fuel the donation campaign.
The Rev. Ashley Freeman said he felt the human contact was an extra blessing in the outreach effort. “There’s a lot of churches that will do stuff like this and go raise money and I'm not knocking that at all, but I'm, I'm looking at this as an opportunity for my members,” he said. “And I'm sure we'll get down there'll be several hundred people and the goal of the church is to intersect the lives of the people in the immediate community. So, although I'm very happy to help people who are hurting in Lake Charles, while I do that, I'd like to increase our contact here so that after all this is said and done, something comes from those relationships.”
Several churches donated supplies or helped get the word out to their memberships. Paul Meier, owner of Cajun Catch said many teams from Zachary were on the ground cooking in Lake Charles. “This is a big, big organization a lot of people make it happen,” he said. “We're just trying to start a movement. It really fits what you're trying to do get this town.”
Two Lake Charles elected officials evacuated their homes, but not their commitments to their constituents. Calcasieu Parish Police Juror Eddie Lewis Jr. and Calcasieu Parish Police Juror Michael Smith made frequent trips back and forth to Lake Charles while their families stayed in local hotels. While checking on their residents and coordinating relief trips, the two connected with Zachary City Councilman Lael Montgomery.
The three met to strategies to get relief supplies and assistance. On Friday, Sept. 4, Montgomery helped drive donations collected by the Pray for Lake Charles Hurricane Relief campaign. The effort was led by the Zachary Men’s club, several civic organizations, and numerous elected officials. Lewis and Smith met the trucks in Lake Charles to help facilitate distribution.
Bill Johnson, president of the Zachary Men’s Club was thrilled that his group had an opportunity to impact another community while working with the district’s councilman. “I just wanted to say this project was a Lael Montgomery vision and other people’s vision,” he said. “They put it together and we just want to say thank you.”
Montgomery said the donation drives were an automatic response. “We got to give,” he said. “I looked at the floods of 2016; we needed help and when I saw the damage from Lake Charles, I realized that Lake Charles needed our help and God said when your hand is closed you can’t give or receive so you have to open your hand to be a part.”
A donation drive was coordinated by the Zachary Police Department and the Zachary Fire Department. Supplies requested included water, dried good, baby supplies, snacks and cleaning supplies.