It had just rained when Lana Carouba walked into the red and white circus-like tent at Joy Fellowship, a small independent church in Slidell, La.
It smelled like sulfur - rotten eggs - on that January day because of the standing water from the rain.
But what she saw inside the tent was pallets right and left: Food on the right, paper and hygiene products in the middle and baby products on the left.
What she also saw was a lovefest for residents who lost their homes and possessions during Hurricane Katrina. Volunteers from throughout the country have helped at the church's supply distribution center since the hurricane hit in late August.
Carouba and other members from Lodi's Heartland Community Church flew to Louisiana on Jan. 7 and spent a week working almost non-stop.
In fact, since October, nearly 30 Heartland members took the cross-country trek to Slidell, 30 miles northeast of New Orleans to package necessities, give Christmas toys, take victims shopping and installing a shower, washer and dryer for volunteers.
Many Heartland volunteers got there for free, thanks to Southwest Airlines' donation of 18 round-trip plane tickets to the Lodi church.
"I was overwhelmed (by the poverty and outreach)," said Heartland member Rhonda Alaria of Lodi, who made the trek in October. "I cried a lot. I came back just so humbled."
Joy Fellowship is a intimate church with only 26 adult members. Yet it is a major distribution point for meeting Slidell residents' most basic needs.
Helping all day long
Volunteers, whether they be from Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Louisiana or Lodi, worked from early morning to well into the evening. Some were in the tent boxing up supplies.
Others were in the kitchen preparing food.
And, still others were boxing food in the church pantry. Or they were in the baby room, where infant products were stored. Some even boxed toys in the sanctuary.
"Every pew and between every pew, we had toys," said Linden resident Terrie Colborn who went to Slidell in December with her husband, Ralph, and their three children.
Volunteers performed tasks depending on how many were present at the church on a particular day. Heartland volunteers generally stayed a week, but people from other parts of the country came just for the day, said Carouba, who lives in Lodi.
For about the first month after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, those volunteers had to go without showers. The humidity was intense in the early fall, so volunteers had to go out the back door of the church and hose themselves down.
But Heartland's Dan Alaria came to the rescue in early October. He became a real hero in Slidell because he used his construction skills to build a fancy bathroom, complete with a shower and nice amenities. The church already had a small bathroom, but lacked a shower.
A month later, Brian Pettit, also from Lodi, provided another necessary amenity.
"He put in a washer and dryer, which was just as cool as the bathroom," said Heather Berry, who was part of Pettit's team from Heartland. "We would have smelled a lot worse if it weren't for Brian."
Mornings were generally spent packing boxes divided into types of items: From canned and packaged food, toilet paper and paper towels to diapers and baby food clothing and blankets.
The 200 to 300 food boxes, alone, arranged daily included beans, peanut butter, tuna, Gatorade, cereal and corn meal.
The line of victims begins
Come noontime, a line of cars would enter the horseshoe-shaped driveway at Joy Fellowship. These were people who lost their homes, possessions or both. They were desperate for any possible item that volunteers had available.
In the first couple of months after Hurricane Katrina, 300 families a day would collect the very basic necessities needed to sustain themselves. In January, the number dwindled to about 150.
"I need a women's large and a children's medium," Carouba would shout to a volunteer under the tent before giving the resident the needed items.
Traffic was often backed up, sometimes because of the large number of victims who needed help, and sometimes because Joy Fellowship is next door to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
From noon to 3 p.m. each day, needy families stopped at five "stations" at Joy Fellowship. At the first one, volunteers from Heartland and elsewhere handed out the same food boxes they packed that morning, plus cases of bottled water.
The second station had toilet paper, personal hygiene products and shoes. Next came the station with soap, detergent and similar items. And, the fourth station had hot food.
Just as hurricane victims were about to leave, they stopped at one final station where they received a Bible and a prayer from a volunteer.
Heartland's Ken Rowe, whom Carouba dubbed "the prayer warrior," reveled in praying for the victims. He was so lengthy with his prayers that he caused the flow of cars to come to a halt.
"We could tell when Ken was praying because you could smell the (car) exhaust," Pettit's wife, Sherri, said.
Damage worse in other parts of town
Joy Fellowship didn't face too much hurricane damage because it was at a higher elevation from other parts of town, but it wasn't a pretty side if you took a 10-minute drive from Joy Fellowship. That's where the destruction lay - big-screen TVs, furniture, cars and other items were just strewn about on the roads.
"You could smell oils, mold, sewage and death," said Ralph Colborn, who was in Slidell in November and returned for another week five weeks later. "You didn't see any (dead bodies), but you could smell them."
Colborn recalls Heartland Pastor Chris Chavez's assessment of Slidell - "Like a third-world country in the middle of war."
Carouba also toured parts of New Orleans. She saw a front yard with a full-size Santa Claus doll with a poignant sign - "All I want for Christmas is my city back."
Spreading Christmas joy
In addition to preparing distribution boxes, some Heartland members drove from the church and took their love on the road.
Terrie Colborn and her three children went door to door in Slidell neighborhoods to leave them Christmas toys, said Kylee Colborn, 10. If no one was home, they would look at what toys were in the front yard - were they boys' toys or girls' toys? Then they would leave a toy of what they thought was the gender and age of the child who lived there.
Carouba also took victims shopping in local stores, whether it be Wal-Mart, Lowe's, Home Depot, Marshall's and Bed Bath and Beyond. Heartland allocated $400 for each person Carouba took shopping.
While residents were grateful for whatever they received, Carouba found that they felt more of a sense of ownership if they buy what they wanted.
How to contribute
Contributions to hurricane victims in Slidell, La., may be made to Heartland Community Church, 651 N. Cherokee Lane, Lodi, CA 95240, 333-7089, or by calling Tom Hoffman, chairman of the Lodi Disaster Recovery Coalition, at 369-8578.
"I would want to pick out my own sheets," she said.
One woman about 50 years old told Carouba how she swam for two-and-a-half hours straight, just to get from her home in New Orleans to higher ground. The woman found a board and used it as a paddle. Along the way, she saw several dead bodies as she swam.
The good news is that 19 of the woman's 20 cats survived Hurricane Katrina, with only a kitten dying. She had put them in cages in the attic before her dramatic swim.
Carouba said that each person who volunteers in Louisiana has a different experience.
"It touches people in different ways," she said.
Like many of her friends from Heartland, Carouba was overwhelmed. Many had renewed faith in God. As Carouba put it, "If you're not a believer when you get there, you will be."
Heartland Community Church is looking for community volunteers who want to fly to Slidell and help on future trips. For more information, call the church at 333-7089. The church is at 651 N. Cherokee Lane, Lodi.