Spreading The Word Of Hope
● By Robert Frey
Reverend Zach Mitchell
By Wynce Nolley
For some people, community outreach is a part-time job where those willing to volunteer their spare time pitch in for the less fortunate whenever and wherever they can. But for the Rev. Zachary Mitchell it’s a calling.
Mitchell, 60, lives in New Iberia along with his wife and four children and has been the pastor at Word of Hope World Outreach Church since its inception in 2007. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Tulane University and a doctorate in theology from Life Christian University.
Mitchell says he knew he wanted to become a pastor from very early on.
“Once I committed my life to the Lord Jesus Christ, I began to serve people and it’s basically something that you know in your heart,” says Mitchell. “And once I started to follow that it brought me to where I am today.”
Having been a preacher for the better part of a decade, Mitchell has had his fair share of experience in helping with community relief efforts including his work during Hurricane Katrina.
“We had the opportunity to do some work for Hurricane Katrina when I was pastoring another church,” says Mitchell. “We just decided to help people and it really blossomed into a large work of helping the community. And that’s where our hearts have been all along, is to help the community in the best way that we can.”
It was this exposure that helped Mitchell gain the necessary skills and experience to prepare him for the recent devastation caused by the massive flooding in August that ravaged so many homes and families in the South Louisiana area.
When the historic flooding hit Iberia Parish and the surrounding areas, Mitchell went into action as the Chairman of the Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, which is an organization that is under the Office of Emergency Preparedness in Iberia Parish. Mitchell has served as the CERT Chairman since 2010.
“We help with disasters and emergencies in our community. So, this was a great fit, at least for me, to be a part of that organization,” says Mitchell.
Mitchell’s role as the CERT Chairman was to provide leadership and vision to the organization along with its many volunteers and to help develop and plan evacuations in times of a hurricane or natural disaster.
“We have about 125 members–and that’s throughout the parish–that have gone through CERT training,” says Mitchell. “So, there are some great people and great volunteers and that’s what makes it run so well.”
According to Mitchell, the Iberia Parish Government had an emergency plan in place for such a disaster to open up a shelter at Cyr Gates Community Center in New Iberia City Park.
Mitchell and his CERT team of first responders, along with other co-leaders like Ms. Cheryl Cheramie, were the ones who immediately sprang into action as the floodwaters rose to establish the shelter. CERT was geared up to keep the shelter open for three days and then turn it over to the Red Cross.
CERT has also partnered with United Way of Iberia to open and maintain a distribution center to accept and provide donations and other supplies to flood victims.
“In that effort, there has been some tremendous partners and tremendous volunteers from the churches as well as Word of Hope and from the community and especially from businesses,” says Mitchell. “So, it’s really been a great effort.”
After CERT had transitioned the shelter over to the Red Cross, Mitchell and his team shifted their focus on helping the distribution center and its efforts of getting much needed supplies to the area’s many affected residents.
“When we started putting the transition of the shelter to Red Cross, I sort of broke off to head the distribution center because at the time we were getting a lot of donations from the community and various companies,” says Mitchell. “We wanted to do the very best for the people that were impacted, so I transitioned to open up a distribution center and we’ve had that open for almost three weeks now. And, it’s basically still open at the present time, but we are transitioning out and trying to specialize the effort to help the people the best way we can.”
Even though it has been more than a month since the flooding hit South Louisiana, donations are still pouring in and people are still trying to rebuild their lives. However, Mitchell says he is optimistic about the ongoing relief efforts and where the community is as whole in recovering from such a monumental disaster.
“People are still concerned. People are still in need,” he says. “But, they have transitioned from having a dire need of a place to stay to now trying to clean their place up and get some repairs done. Everybody’s responding pretty well and we’re just gearing up to receive products like cleaning products and toiletries that would help the people in this stage now of returning back to their normal lives.”
Mitchell says that, in his estimate, the New Iberia community is well on its way to putting itself back together, though it still has a long way to go before it becomes completely whole again.
“I would say that there is still a lot of work to be done,” says Mitchell. “The effort now is not as dire, but I think it’s more specialized now because there are particular efforts to be done.”
Mitchell says that there are still plenty of residents who are either waiting to go back home to try to rebuild and restore, or are still temporarily displaced and are desperately trying to find a new home.
“I think the effort now is not dire, but I think it’s a necessary effort now where we are in recovery and we are now moving into a slower process, but a desperately-needed process for many of the people because some people are still out of a home,” he says. “So, I would call it almost critical, but not dire.”
According to Mitchell, the volunteer response to the flood and its aftermath has been remarkable especially with regard to the clean up crews on the ground making sure that water damaged homes are cleared of mold.
“There has been a great effort on the ground, simply meaning that a lot of people are focused on their giving and because they really see the need,” says Mitchell. “There’s some fantastic organizations that are on the ground and doing cleanups for families at no cost. And in Louisiana, with our climate, it tends to allow mold to grow. So, a lot of these places are getting cleaned up.”
All in all, Mitchell says that the experience of witnessing first hand the community banding together to help itself get through such a tragedy has strengthened his already high regard of the people of Acadiana.
“My experience and what I really took from this is sort of an empowerment that our community coming together can basically handle just about anything,” says Mitchell. “Because I have really seen some tremendous partners–be it businesses, be it churches, be it community groups, be it government organizations. I have seen them in this effort really come through and it’s an extremely rewarding situation. It’s an extremely warm situation to see. And it’s so heartfelt for the people to respond as they did and come together. And so, we really feel empowered because of that.
“I really just appreciate all of the people of our area,” adds Mitchell. “It’s just a fantastic thing for us to do what we’ve done. We’ve been blessed to do it. There have been some great volunteers and great stories of people helping. We’ve even had people that were hurt from it come in to help and to try to help others. It’s a great, great effort and I’m just thankful to be a part of it.”