This effort started out with high hopes: collect nearly 500 boxes of donated items to fill a 48-foot truck, then have the goods transported to Hurricane Katrina victims in Alabama. But only four of 23 pallets had been filled as of Oct. 22, when the five-day collection in Ithaca was scheduled to end.
However, that didn’t mark quitting time quite yet for Rita Demarest and Amelia Massi, co-organizers of Project Reachout2000, the ecumenical group that staged the collection.
“‘We have to believe more, and we have to trust.’ That became like our mantra,” Demarest recalled.
Demarest and Massi, members of Ithaca’s Immaculate Conception Parish, asked for and received permission from the collection site — the New York State National Guard Armory on Hanshaw Road — to prolong the drive by three more days. They also launched a hasty publicity campaign announcing the extension.
And that made all the difference — a difference that was downright miraculous.
The extended drive ran from Oct. 24-26. By the time loading was completed on Oct. 27, the truck was filled to capacity. Two days later, it arrived at its destination of Bayou La Batre, Ala.
“We have no idea how this happened,” Demarest said of Ithacans’ sudden burst of generosity.
“It was a miracle. God was awesome — he gave us three days,” said Massi, comparing the turn of events to Jesus’ rising after three days in the tomb. Meanwhile, Demarest cited the New Testament passage in which Jesus feeds 5,000 people after starting out with only a few fishes and loaves of bread.
Massi and Demarest said they got most every type of item that was requested, such as cleaning products, laundry-care products, clothing for adults and children, bedding, towels, cloths, diapers, baby formula, coolers, hygiene items, lanterns, stoves, air mattresses, generators, fans, small air conditioners, cooking oil, salt, pepper, flour, sugar and manual can openers.
Demarest recalled one donor who was told that displaced children in Alabama were sleeping on the ground — and that was enough for the woman to return to a store and buy a whole new slew of goods to donate. Demarest also noted that doctors’ offices contributed numerous antibiotics, surgical items and other medical supplies.
In addition to items brought to the Armory, Massi said that several donations of money were made, including an anonymous gift of $1,000. Also playing a major role were businesses that donated services, vehicles, supplies and space. For instance, the truck driver refused any payment beyond gas money.
“All this stuff was done for free. Phenomenal,” Demarest remarked.
A strong spiritual thread has run through this effort, exemplified by the cancer-stricken woman who donated a large crucifix.
“We asked the driver if he would let the crucifix be in the cab next to him. At first he was hesitant, then he agreed,” Massi said.
Demarest said that a crucifix at St. Margaret Church was damaged by the hurricane, so the one that came from Ithaca can potentially serve as a replacement.
St. Margaret, the largest Catholic parish in the Bayou La Batre area, is noted for performing ecumenical outreach to this shrimping community, made famous in the movie “Forrest Gump.” The Ithaca connection began after Massi’s cousin Angela McAtee, who lives in Mobile, Ala. — about a half-hour north of Bayou La Batre — learned that Katrina’s wrath had wiped out most of the area’s shrimping industry.
Another facet of the Project Reachout2000 effort was collecting vestments for the Jesuit priests who staff St. Margaret Church as well as other area priests. Massi and Demarest said they received many donations of vestments — from Ithaca churches as well as others in the Rochester Diocese — to replace the ones that were ruined in Alabama.
Massi added that one Alabama business has already contributed several thousand dollars’ worth of goods after hearing of the Ithaca project.
“It’s been miracles abounding,” she said.
Project Reachout2000 is an organization headed by mothers and grandmothers that seeks to engage local children in learning the value of giving to those in need. For example, Demarest observed, several youth volunteers stood in the rain at the Armory while few donations were coming in, giving them a sense of what children in Alabama had endured following the hurricane.
“They got to experience the nothingness,” Demarest said. “They have to learn there’s others who don’t have it as cushy.”
According to Massi, Project Reachout2000 began in 1998 as an outgrowth of a small Christian community. The group also has completed relief projects to benefit homeless children in Ecuador; children in a leper colony founded by Mother Teresa; young victims of war in Nigeria; hurricane-stricken families in the Dominican Republic; and local youths who received 500 medical kits valued at $24,000 to $26,000 in the year 2000.
Demarest said Project Reachout2000 doesn’t plan its efforts very far in advance, instead reacting to where the greatest current needs may exist.
“We get inspired to do these things. It’s like, ‘OK, there’s a need here and we have to fill it.’ We don’t pick and choose it,” Demarest said.