Blessed Homecoming: Hattiesburg resident home after lengthy renovation process

By BETH BUNCH,

It was a day of celebration as R3SM dedicated its 28th house Tuesday on Bennett Street in Petal. Lashandra Johnson is the proud owner of the two-bedroom, two-bath home, which was severely damaged in the January 2017 tornado that struck the Hattiesburg and Petal areas.

Johnson’s story is one more than two years in the making and she was finally glad to get the keys to her forever home.

Johnson’s story is a lengthy one.

Following the 2017 storm, Johnson received insurance money and hired a contractor who started her home renovation process before absconding with her money. The work the contractor did was not done correctly, thus leaving her with a mess and no money.

Almost at the end of her rope, Johnson contacted R3SM seeking assistance.

“You were the last person who walked in the door,” said Mavis Creagh, executive director of the nonprofit. “We knew it would be a long journey, but we always thought it would be possible.”

On Tuesday that “possible” was evident, thanks to volunteers, donations and other gifts of support.

Creagh thanked those partners who made the day possible, as well as the previous 27 house dedications.

“We celebrate this new home as a place to provide safety, comfort, peace and respite,” she said.

UMCOR, the volunteer arm of the United Methodist Church, The PineBelt Foundation, and World Renew, the helping hands of the Christian Reform Church, were just some of the many volunteers who helped with the completion of the house.

“They are passionate and have supplied us with probably most of our volunteers,” Chris Adams, who oversees volunteers, said about the World Renew group.

“The Methodist Conference has also partnered with us through multiple disasters We couldn’t do what we do without the thousands of volunteers who have come through here,” Adams said.

Julia Brown spoke on behalf of the R3SM board.

“We appreciate the people who have volunteered, made a contribution to this beautiful home,” she said. “We hope you will be blessed in it as well as those who helped you. We celebrate you today.”

“It’s been a long road,” said Johnson, when it was her time to speak. “I’m so grateful – to the people from all over the country who have come to help make this day possible, showing there are still a lot of kind people in the world who gave me hope. Hopefully they’ll continue to do that with other people. I can’t say thank you enough.”

“Our faith in God is what makes moments like this possible,” said one person

In addition to the keys to the home, Johnson was presented with a Cross of the Covenant made by R3SM volunteers. The green color of the cross represents life and renewal, while the four beads represent the four lives lost during the January 2017 tornado. Reclaimed copper wire wraps around the cross like the arms of love and faith during this time of recovery.”

PineBelt Strong.

“I’m relieved that I’m finally in,” Johnson said. “It’s taken over two-and-a-half years to get me to this point. I honestly can’t believe I’ve gone through all this, but with faith in God... it’s unbelievable. It’s hard to believe and I almost want to pinch myself because of what it’s taken to get me here.”

For the time being, Johnson will be the home’s sole occupant. She’s looking forward to family members being with her in the home for Christmas and again next summer.

“It’s a wonderful thing to come into contact with an organization such as R3SM,” Johnson said. “I’m glad they exist. I’m glad there are people out there who are concerned as much as they’ve been to help people restore their homes and help them get back to their lives. There aren’t many organizations that will do that.”

For those people who are still dealing with the aftermath of storms or other life disasters, Johnson urges them to “just hold on and keep the faith.”

Creagh is elated that Johnson’s story has such a happy ending. “She had some challenges by being taken advantage of by a contractor, kind of got ripped off and the shoddy workmanship before we got her case,” she said. “But being able to restore somebody’s hope and faith is a positive that is just immeasurable.

“The work we do is like a puzzle. We want to make people whole again.”

But even though this house is complete, there is still work to be done. Creagh said while they are finishing up tornado damage work in the Hattiesburg area, they are ready to begin working on flood work from the beginning of this year.

“We are looking for volunteers and supporters,” she said.

Another home in Hattiesburg still needs to be completed and there is other work to be done.

To date, more than $4 million in volunteer labor and resources have been put back into the community within the last two years as a result of the work R3SM and is partner agencies, volunteers and others have contributed.

“We are very thankful for the many partners who have come together, and have really stepped up by donating and volunteering,” Creagh said. “We still do have some additional needs. We are still partnering with The Pine Belt Foundation, if anyone would ike to make a donation. Thankful for those who have come and played a part in any way possible. We need volunteers and support in any way possible, to help these people recover and get them back into their homes.”

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