Two New York churches adopt Mississippi family


By Kathy L. Gilbert
United Methodist News Service

Lisa, Destin and Darrien Swanson are wearing big smiles and new school uniforms for their first day of school in Pearlington thanks to two United Methodist churches in upstate New York.  

A chance meeting of three women in a New York pizza place led to the Swanson family in Mississippi being adopted by the Red Hook and Rowe United Methodist churches in Red Hook and Milan, N.Y. 

Cable News Network carried a feature on the family of Denise Swanson, a single mother of four who lost everything in the Hurricane Katrina, and two United Methodist congregations. 

Meeting through a waitress

Angela Cole, a nurse from Tivoli, N.Y., and sisters Deborah Lamb and Jude Polotaye happened to be in a neighborhood pizza place at the same time. The waitress knew the sisters were planning to go on a mission trip to Biloxi, Miss., and she knew Cole had been to Mississippi several times. She introduced Cole to the sisters. 

Cole has made helping the people of Pearlington her personal mission. Her efforts have grown into a national, grass-roots campaign, and she is hoping to get more families adopted. 

 “One year after the community of 1,700 was leveled, the approximately 800 persons who have returned live their lives in limbo not knowing when — or if — their tiny community will fully recover,” Cole says. The people refer to themselves as “forgotten,” she says. 

On the day they met in the pizza place, Lamb and Polotaye were days away from going on the mission trip to Biloxi.  

“She told us the story of Pearlington, in the southwest corner of Mississippi that directly got hit by the hurricane,” Polotaye says of Cole. “Pearlington is in the backwoods and is really struggling. The more she talked, the more excited we got.” 

The mission team made the trip to Biloxi and still had a little more than $800 that was not spent on the trip.  

A short time later, Lamb heard Hancock County, where Pearlington is located, was requiring all children to have uniforms for the school year. While the team had not visited the forgotten Mississippi town, she remembered Cole’s stories and thought the money would be put to good use by the Swanson family. 

“We didn’t want to just buy clothes for the children; we wanted them to be able to pick out what they wanted,” Lamb explains.  

“What makes the way the church did this so special is they sent the money so Denise could buy the uniforms with the kids,” Cole says. “Darrien is 12, and that’s a tough age.  

“He wants to wear a certain type of khaki pants, and by sending money Denise could preserve his sense of self and dignity and buy him what he wanted.” 

“It means so much because I can’t get my kids all the things I could before, and that hurts,” Denise says. 

Churches plan baby shower

Red Hook and Rowe United Methodist churches have decided to adopt the family and send more support. Already the churches are planning a baby shower for Denise’s oldest daughter, who is pregnant. 

“We plan to have the shower in our lounge and take pictures and send the gifts. After that, we are planning to do Christmas for them,” Polotaye says. The churches also want to send a mission team down to Pearlington. 

“I am just so proud of what these two lay people have done,” says the Rev. Dave Jolly, pastor of both New York congregations. “We are too small to be doing this, but we are doing it. Any time they have encountered roadblocks, they have built bridges over the roadblocks.” 

Cole has formed the Pearlington Project Katrina Foundation Inc., a nonprofit organization, to fund the building of permanent houses for families and individuals whose homes were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. 

She is painfully aware of the looming deadline of February when the Federal Emergency Management Agency has said it will reclaim the trailers it has provided to those left homeless by Hurricane Katrina.  

Jolly says it is amazing what churches full of spirit-filled people can do.

“One leap of faith has just led to another.”